El Tráfico: Galaxy’s ‘Chicharito’ and LAFC’s Vela will finally square off Saturday
The first intercity clash between LAFC and the Galaxy was just more than an hour old when Zlatan Ibrahimovic left the Galaxy bench and took Sebastian Lletget’s place on the field. Over the next 25 minutes, the larger-than-life Swedish superstar would score two impossible goals, erasing goals in each half by LAFC’s Carlos Vela and setting the foundation for a rivalry that, in four short years, has become the fiercest in Southern California professional sports.
From the start in 2018, the games between the two neighbors, separated by a dozen miles of freeway, has been about big plays and bigger personalities. Ibrahimovic and Vela combined for 18 goals in the first six meetings, the last a 2019 playoff match that proved to be Ibrahimovic’s final MLS appearance.
So when the Galaxy signed Javier “Chicharito” Hernández before the 2020 season, the matchup was expected to center on him and Vela, World Cup teammates with Mexico. That didn’t happen.
Injuries kept them from appearing on the field together in the last seven renewals of the rivalry, known as El Tráfico, but that’s expected to change Saturday when Hernández and Vela, finally healthy at the same time, lead their teams into the first grudge match of the season at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Asked this week what that means, Hernández was succinct.
“It means that LAFC is going to be way better than the last game,” he said.
“I love him. I admire him,” he continued of Vela. “But then when the whistle goes, he’s no one for me.”
What the rivalry means to Vela is anyone’s guess since LAFC’s captain, who hasn’t spoken publicly this season, abruptly canceled a scheduled session with the media Thursday. What is known is that LAFC hasn’t beaten the Galaxy in Carson in six tries and hasn’t beaten them anywhere in a game Vela has started since that playoff match three years ago.
All that, Hernández said, means nothing.
“Carlos Vela [wouldn’t] be no one without his teammates. Myself too,” he said. “I think only Messi and Ronaldo can play by themselves and win championships. Apart from those two, we all depend on everyone.”
Maybe. Yet Hernández and Vela, who are tied for second in the MLS scoring race with four goals in five games, have certainly stood apart in helping their teams get off to fast starts this season.
The Galaxy (3-2-0) are third in the Western Conference, with Hernández accounting for four of the team’s seven goals. LAFC (4-0-1), one of the league’s three unbeaten teams, tops the Supporters’ Shield standings and also shares the league lead with 13 goals. Vela, with four goals and two assists, has had a hand in nearly half of those scores.
Both players started in the youth program at Chivas of Guadalajara before playing in two World Cups together. Hernández is Mexico’s all-time leading scorer; Vela is fourth among active players.
The U.S. will play England, Iran and the winner of a three-team UEFA playoff in group play at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The draw was held Friday.
They’ve faced each other only three times as opponents, twice in Champions League play when Hernández was at Manchester United and Vela at Real Sociedad, and the last time, more than seven years ago, in a La Liga game after Hernández moved to Real Madrid.
“They’re obviously both great players,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “And they both have amazing qualities, each different in their own right. But there are also 20 other players in the field with a lot of quality and that is where the game will be decided.”
Given the history of the series and the cult of personality that helped spawn it, those other players will be the supporting cast Saturday. The main characters in the latest chapter of MLS’s most passionate feud will be Hernández, the likable, quick-talking gunslinger with the matinee-idol good looks, who will be in Galaxy white, and Vela, the quiet, smoldering, misunderstood anti-hero, who will wear LAFC black.
And that’s just fine with the one man who has played on both sides of the rivalry.
“I really don’t care,” said Galaxy defender Raheem Edwards, who played for LAFC last season. “As long as we’re playing well, we’re winning, I don’t care who gets the recognition. I just want three points.”