LA Galaxy and LAFC finally give City of Angels a true soccer rivalry
LOS ANGELES -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic seemed unimpressed.
"If I'm honest, this stadium is too small for me," he said of being heckled by the opposing fans during the LA Galaxy's 2-2 draw with LAFC on Thursday night. "I'm used to playing in front of 80,000. And when 80,000 whistle to you, then you get on your toes and you start to do the real work. But when 20,000 whistle you, are not cheering for you, it's like when I'm doing a training. With all due respect."
It's still early -- very, very early -- but it's hard not to get the sense that something real is building between LAFC and the Galaxy, small as their respective stadiums might be. On Thursday night, 22,716 fans packed into LAFC's new Banc of California Stadium and at times made it feel as alive as the 90,000-seat Coliseum that sits adjacent to it, Ibrahimovic's jaded sentiments notwithstanding.
L.A.'s two Major League Soccer teams faced one another for the second time and followed a similar script: LAFC pulling ahead early, the Galaxy coming on late and both sets of fans leaving exhilarated. The first match, from StubHub Center in Carson, California, ended in a stirring 4-3, Ibrahimovic-inspired comeback for the Galaxy. The second finished in a 2-2 deadlock that included 37 fouls, two Galaxy goals in the final 10 minutes and several heart-stopping, nail-biting moments throughout.
By the end, there was little doubt -- L.A. finally has a true soccer rivalry.
"We're trying to create a good [rivalry] against the two teams in L.A.," LAFC midfielder Carlos Vela said. "I think both games have been good. We're trying to do a fun game for the fans, because in the end, the people pay to watch a good show."
Chivas USA shared a market with the Galaxy from 2005 to 2014, but the dynamic never picked up much steam. The Galaxy dominated the matchup, winning 20 times in 31 meetings, and the two shared a stadium. There was no real home turf to defend, no line of demarcation among the vast L.A. landscape.
"This is totally different," said Eduardo Cauich, who spent four years as a communications manager with Chivas USA and is now sports editor for Hoy Deportes, an L.A. Times publication.
"This is exactly what Chivas wanted, what Chivas dreamed of having -- a stadium like this, with a fan base like what you see right now. It's completely different. If you are from Los Angeles and you saw Chivas USA against the Galaxy, it was passionate, but not as authentic as this environment. This is the first game at home for LAFC against the Galaxy, and it feels like they've been playing for five years."
The LAFC tailgaters were in full force on a strip of lawn north of the stadium four hours before the start of this match, now known widely as "El Trafico."
True to its name, the streets were congested and the traffic plodded for most of the afternoon. But Banc of California Stadium was at least a quarter full by about 5:30 p.m. It was the area between Sections 101 to 107, hailed as "The North End," and the fans all wore black, filling the air with drumbeats and chants two hours before their beloved LAFC got a second chance against the hated Galaxy.
LAFC fans -- many of them converted Chivas USA fans -- have adopted the chosen identity of the new age, diverse, working-class expansion team. They thumb their noses at the regal, suburban Galaxy franchise that has claimed a record five MLS Cups and, in their minds, no longer identifies with the soul of L.A.
Galaxy fans mockingly refer to LAFC fans as "Chivas 2.0."
LAFC fans call their rivals the "Carson Galaxy," stating that LAFC's home -- 12 miles away in South Central -- resides in the heart of this city. The animosity seems to be growing deeper.
"They hate us, we hate them," Fernando Varela, a 21-year-old LAFC fan, said. "They think that they should kind of own this territory, but in a few months, LAFC has kind of taken control of L.A. You see LAFC gear anywhere and everywhere. People are saying they're LAFC fans. Galaxy fans are angry at that. And we're trying to defend that. So, both sides, they dislike each other. That means it's a rivalry."
The Galaxy finished the 2017 season in last place, which means LAFC's timing could not have been better. They absorbed what became an underserved community of soccer fans in the nation's second-largest media market, then housed them in a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility and proved they could win consistently.
Fans from both sides vandalized murals of their opponents. LAFC began issuing only 100 tickets for visiting fans, the minimum required by the MLS, and so the Galaxy did the same.
They met, at last, on March 31. LAFC took a 3-0 lead at the 48-minute mark, but the Galaxy stormed all the way back, Ibrahimovic's two goals -- in his debut, no less -- keying an improbable victory.
LAFC took the lead again on Thursday, first on a short header by Vela seven minutes in and then on a Lee Nguyen free kick at the 20-minute mark. But then Romain Alessandrini chested down a cross from Ibrahimovic and fired it inside the left post, cutting the Galaxy's deficit in half with about 10 minutes remaining. Vela could feel his team turn inward.
"Everybody's like, 'I don't want the ball,'" Vela said. "If we would've played five more minutes, we would've lost for sure. And this is not the way to beat a great team."
The tide officially turned when Ola Kamara took an ill-advised backward pass from Andre Horta, motored around goalkeeper Tyler Miller and kicked the ball into an empty net.
LAFC, still the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with 36 points, walked away distraught.
"We felt like we let down our fans, let down our supporters," defender Walker Zimmerman said. "It means a lot to us, so it hurts to let that slip away."
The Galaxy, in fourth place with 32 points, lamented missed opportunities.
"We should have buried this game," Ibrahimovic said on the field moments after the final whistle, then was asked about the environment of this budding rivalry.
He seemed more sincere this time.
"You see the atmosphere," Ibrahimovic said. "The atmosphere was fantastic, cheering the whole game, especially their fans. Our fans did a good job also. When the atmosphere is like that, it gives you extra motivation, extra energy to keep going."