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Column: Galaxy and LAFC off to promising starts in quest to reclaim MLS crown-jewel status

Galaxy star Javier "Chicharito" Hernández celebrates after scoring in the 90th minute.
Galaxy star Javier “Chicharito” Hernández celebrates after scoring in the 90th minute of a 1-0 victory over New York City FC in the season opener for both teams Sunday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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They are now indistinct faces in a crowded plaza, a couple of random teams in a 28-team league.

Which is inexcusable.

The Galaxy and LAFC have two of the highest-spending ownership groups in Major League Soccer.

They have two of the country’s most devoted fan bases.

They share the league’s most fertile homegrown territory.

Los Angeles should be the focal point of MLS, as it was just three years ago when LAFC was the best team in the league and the Galaxy was headlined by the colorful and dominant Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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The process of reclaiming their designations as the league’s crown-jewel franchises started in an opening weekend that was punctuated by Chicharito Hernández’s 90th-minute strike in the Galaxy’s 1-0 victory over defending champion NYCFC on Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park.

A day earlier, LAFC cruised to a 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids behind a hat trick by Carlos Vela.

As promising as their starts were, both teams remain unknown quantities, especially LAFC, which is uncertain whether Vela will still be with the team after FIFA’s summer transfer window closes.

LAFC's Carlos Vela chases the ball during a win over Colorado in the team's season opener Saturday.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela chases the ball during a win over Colorado in the team’s season opener Saturday. Vela scored three goals in the win.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The Western Conference is considered the weaker of the two conferences, but neither team is considered a lock to reach the playoffs.

Both teams missed the postseason in 2021. Los Angeles hasn’t celebrated an MLS Cup victory since 2014 when the Galaxy won the most recent of their record five titles.

“The beauty of sports is, like, most of the time, you have the opportunity to redeem yourself,” Hernández said.

Hernández should be productive again, provided he remains healthy. He scored 17 goals in an injury-shortened season last year, and he finished Sunday with a familiar degree of precision.

Slipped a pass behind NYCFC’s back line by left back Raheem Edwards, Hernández looked as if he would shoot on the first touch, only to cut the ball back to his right foot and send defender Maxime Chanot sliding past him in spread eagle position. Hernández blasted the ball into the far side of the net.

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Now in their second year under coach Greg Vanney, the Galaxy have a clearer idea of what they want to do, as their combination play in the midfield and a series of crosses from overlapping right back Julian Araujo created a 15-9 advantage in shots.

Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández scores in the 90th minute to propel the Galaxy to a 1-0 season-opening victory over visiting New York City FC on Sunday.

Feb. 27, 2022

Newcomer Douglas Costa didn’t play in the preseason and it showed, his moments of inspiration offset by his inconsistency. The 31-year-old Costa was playing for Bayern Munich as recently as last year but is a risky designated-player signing in today’s MLS, as injuries have limited his playing time in recent seasons.

Vanney’s attention directed to the back line, which is considered the team’s weakness.

“We defended our goal, we defended our box and we defended our hearts out,” Vanney said. “And if we do that, we’re going to be fine.”

The statement was probably designed more to inspire the players than to be factual, as the Galaxy were fortunate that NYCFC didn’t capitalize on mistakes made by Sega Coulibaly, Nick DePuy and Edwards.

The day before, up the 110 Freeway at Banc of California Stadium, LAFC didn’t have problems with its defenders being out of position. Of course, it’s easier for a team to keep its shape when its outside backs rarely join the attack.

What was clear Saturday is that new coach Steve Cherundolo doesn’t share the romantic vision of predecessor Bob Bradley, whose priorities were to attack, attack and attack some more.

Vela started the game as the center forward, as striker Cristian Arango was returning from a preseason injury and limited to 17 minutes as a second-half substitute. LAFC was cautious, especially early, when most of its attacks consisted of long balls over the top of the Rapids’ back line.

Carlos Vela, the 2019 MLS most valuable player, was dominant in LAFC’s season opener, scoring three goals in a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids.

Feb. 26, 2022

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“It wasn’t a game that was as fast where you got the ball and went on attack,” midfielder José Cifuentes said.

More dangerous chances were created when Vela dropped back to receive the ball at his feet, his ability to make something out of nothing more than making up for the team’s reluctance to commit bodies forward.

Vela’s perfectly-weighted pass helped Kellyn Acosta win a penalty that Vela converted for the opening goal. Vela scored again when he outran the Rapids’ defenders for a 40-meter pass by Cifuentes.

He put the game out of reach on a second-half counterattack in which he found himself one-on-one with a backtracking defender who gave him enough space to uncork a left-footed shot.

Certainly, some spectators will applaud the change from Bradley’s high-risk, high-reward style. They will celebrate the switch to Ilie Sánchez, who is a true holding midfielder, from the departed Eduard Atuesta, who was more of a No. 8 playing as a No. 6.

But it feels as if LAFC has lost an essential part of its identity, its attempt to expand the possibilities of the kind of soccer that can be played in MLS replaced by a more pragmatic philosophy. This depressing concession was camouflaged by Vela’s brilliance, which underscores why the team must do everything in its power to extend the Mexican attacker’s contract beyond the handful of months that remain on it.

Without Vela, LAFC is just another MLS team. And Los Angeles is just another MLS market.

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