El Tráfico showcases special rivalry between LAFC’s Ilie Sánchez, Galaxy’s Víctor Vázquez
Just 10 of the more than 800 players in MLS were born in Spain, so those who have made the journey here tend to be close. Until the whistle blows.
“We are like brothers,” Galaxy midfielder Víctor Vázquez said. “Of course, once the game starts, we are not anymore friends. For 90 minutes.”
Or longer. Earlier this season Vázquez’s Galaxy twice beat LAFC, the team who employs Ilie Sánchez. Before each game, Vázquez received a warm hug from Sánchez, a former neighbor in Barcelona. After each game he got a stern text.
“He told me, ‘Don’t call me because I’m mad about the result,’ ” Vázquez said with a grin Thursday. “He said, ‘Don’t talk to me for a week.’ ”
The former teammates’ friendship will be tested again Friday when their clubs meet for the third time this season, this time at Banc of California Stadium. Although LAFC (11-4-3) has the best record, the most goals and best goal differential in MLS, it is winless in the last five editions of the intercity derby known as El Tráfico.
The Galaxy have acquired Uruguayan midfielder Gastón Brugman from Parma Calcio of Italy’s Serie B.
The Galaxy (8-6-3), on the other hand, are hovering just above the playoff line, yet have won all six games played against top-six teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
When Sánchez joined LAFC in January after five seasons with Sporting Kansas City, he said he wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the rivalry — especially with Vázquez lining up on the other side.
“At the beginning, it was a little bit too weird to see him in such an intense game,” he said. “Probably it’s not the ideal situation. But we are professionals, and we can separate things when we get into the field.
“And believe me, in LAFC people — fans, staff — they all teach us what this rivalry means for the city, for the club, for LAFC.“
Vázquez and Sánchez grew up not far from each other, Vázquez near Barcelona’s historic Basilica de la Sagrada Familia and Sánchez a couple of blocks from the city’s old bullring, which has been converted into a trendy seven-story shopping mall.
At 10, Vázquez joined the youth system at FC Barcelona, where he trained alongside Cesc Fàbregas, Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi, who soon became Vázquez’s best friend.
“I remember Messi and Victor were by far the best players in our team,” Fàbregas once said. “Sometimes they would go in for head-to-head duels. If one scored four in one game, the other would hit five.”
At the time, many thought Vázquez was the shiniest player in Barcelona’s golden generation. Yet it was Messi who went on to become arguably the greatest player of all time while Vázquez made only three appearances for the first team. He spent most of his time with Barcelona B, where he played alongside Sánchez, who is four years younger.
“There is no better place than that at that time,” Sánchez said. “With so many other players, you could learn from them, you had them to talk to. That was a beautiful time for us to be part of. We really took advantage of the system that was in Barcelona.”
“We grew up there,” added Vázquez, who said his former teammate hasn’t changed much.
“Ilie had the same abilities, the same skill, the same mentality,” he said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s not this kind of player [who] wants to try too many things. He plays simple.”
Sánchez, whose grandfather Joan Farrés was once director of Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy, joined the developmental system when he was 8 and played five years and 114 games with the B team. But he was called up for only one preseason match with the first team before heading to Germany and, eventually, to MLS, winning a U.S. Open Cup and making the 2018 all-star team with Sporting Kansas City.
Midway through his first season with LAFC, the holding midfielder has more than filled the sizable void left by Eduard Atuesta’s departure, settling a defense that has given up a conference-low 19 goals.
Vázquez, meanwhile, has visited more countries than a UN diplomat, leaving Spain in 2011 to start a tour that would see him play in Belgium, Mexico, Canada and Qatar before joining the Galaxy last season.
In Toronto, playing under current Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, he starred for the only MLS team to win a treble — MLS Cup, domestic cup and Supporters’ Shield — in 2017, when he was named to the league’s Best XI.
There are signs in bustling Qatar it is ready to host the World Cup, but 1.2 million visitors will surely test the tiny, ambitious country.
When he’s on the field, Vázquez’s creativity makes the Galaxy offense go. Troubled by injuries, however, he has started only eight of the team’s 17 games this season.
After Sánchez arrived in L.A. last winter, he said he visited Vázquez frequently, but that has become more difficult since the regular season started.
“But definitely we talk and we know that we are there for each other,” he said. “Probably we’re going to see each other next week.”
They might want to start by exchanging text messages. Depending on what happens Friday night, it might take a few days to recover.