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Column: Golden age of L.A. sports being fueled by star-studded rivalries

LeBron James and Anthony Davis chat during a Lakers-Pelicans game this spring at Staples Center.
LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis add to Los Angeles’ already considerable star power.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

It’s hard to realize you’re in a golden age until it has passed. It’s usually never fully appreciated until it’s in the rear-view mirror and you’re left wondering whatever happened to the good old days. It’s human nature to take great moments for granted until they’re a distant memory, but sports fans in Los Angeles should stop, take a breath and realize they’re in a golden age of L.A. sports right now.

Friday’s El Trafico battle between the Galaxy and LAFC not only highlighted the star power and quality of the top two teams in MLS but showcased what has become the best rivalry in the league and arguably the best in Los Angeles. LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored all five goals in the game with Ibrahimovic’s hat trick edging out Vela’s two goals.

Before the game Ibrahimovic said he was better than Vela, the league’s top scorer and favorite to win the MVP, calling himself a “Ferrari among Fiats.” After the game, Vela said, “I’m better than him right now, that’s the reality.”

It’s one thing to have the two best teams and the two best players in the league playing their best in a rivalry game, it’s another when they can sprinkle in a little trash talk and mutual disdain. That’s what makes this time period in Los Angeles sports so great. It’s not just about one franchise or one star in one sport thriving, it’s both L.A. teams led by multiple stars across several sports, bringing the city the kind of pro sports rivalries that has historically been reserved for college rivals USC and UCLA.

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On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Freeway Series between the Dodgers and Angels is played at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers have the most wins in the major leagues and continue to widen the gap between themselves and the rest of the National League, and the Angels are above .500 and starting to challenge in the wild-card race. The highlight of the match-up will be Mike Trout, the Angels’ 27-year old favorite to win the AL MVP, battling Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ 24-year old favorite to win the NL MVP. Trout and Bellinger are the two best players in the game and the argument about who’s best should rage for years.

The Fight for L.A. in the NFL will reconvene next month when the Rams and Chargers hold joint practices heading into a season where the Rams find themselves as co-favorites to win it all along with the Patriots, who defeated them in last season’s Super Bowl. The Chargers, coming off a 12-4 season, are one of the top 10 favorites going into the season. Both teams boast some of the best players in the league. The Rams are led by Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Aaron Donald, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters while the Chargers are led by Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa and Derwin James. Since Oct. 2, 2017, the Rams are 23-9 and the Chargers 22-8, and the rivalry between the teams will only increase when they move into the new Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park next year.

Perhaps the best rivalry in the city was born out of a blockbuster summer where the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to team him up with LeBron James and the Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard and completed a deal for Paul George, bringing to Los Angeles not only the top two tandems in the NBA but arguably half of the top eight players in the league. The Lakers and Clippers will enter next season as co-favorites to win the title, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, and Staples Center, which has served as the home for both teams since 1999, might finally get a postseason Hallway Series for the first time.

More El Trafico, please. This is a rivalry to enjoy now and to continue enjoying as it ages and adds milestones and memories to Friday’s classic.

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The only pro sports rivalry in the city failing to produce a championship contender and MVP candidates at the moment is the Freeway Face-Off between the Kings and Ducks, but given the unpredictability of the NHL that could change as early as next season. The St. Louis Blues, last season’s Stanley Cup champions, were in last place in the league in January before going on to win their first title, and the Kings won their first Stanley Cup in 2012 after getting into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.

The most recent golden age of sports in Los Angeles took place from 1980 to 1994 when the Lakers played in nine NBA Finals and won five, the Dodgers played in two World Series, winning both, the Kings played in one Stanley Cup Final, the Rams played in one Super Bowl and the Raiders played in and won two Super Bowls with the first taking place while the team was still in Oakland before they relocated to L.A. During that period, Los Angeles also hosted the Summer Olympics in 1984, the World Cup in 1994, four Super Bowls, two MLB All-Star games, one NBA All-Star game and one NHL All-Star game.

The big difference was the lack of local pro sports rivalries. The MLS wasn’t around. The Ducks’ first season wasn’t until 1993-94. The Clippers were the worst franchise in professional sports and the Angels failed to win a playoff series. The Rams also left for Anaheim, which opened the door for the Raiders to move into the Coliseum before both eventually left town.

Not only are the teams in Los Angeles competing for championships with some of the biggest stars in the game, but also the biggest sports events in the world are returning to the city. Since 2017, Los Angeles has hosted back-to-back World Series, the NBA All-Star game and the NHL All-Star game, and will host next year’s MLB All-Star game. The region will also be the site of Super Bowl LVI in 2022, the College Football Playoff national championship game and U.S. Open (golf) in 2023, World Cup in 2026 and the Summer Olympics in 2028.

Los Angeles is a city where championships are the only currency that matters, but take a moment to enjoy this run while it lasts because it doesn’t happen often. We’ll be looking back at this time as the good old days before you know it.


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