Despite Galaxy, LAFC struggles, ‘El Trafico’ has intrigue aplenty

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From the beginning, “El Trafico” had almost everything you could hope for in a rivalry. There was the obvious proximity of the two teams — just 18 minutes apart on a “good” traffic day — but there was also star power in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela and Jonathan dos Santos. There was also the dynamic of having one of MLS’s most storied teams in the LA Galaxy suddenly being challenged for supremacy in southern California by upstart LAFC.

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Granted, a rivalry needs history as well, but in this instance, the tidal wave of drama in the early encounters — encapsulated by Ibrahimovic’s brace on his MLS debut — got the enmity meter redlining faster than one might otherwise expect.

Last season’s playoff encounter — when LAFC finally got its first victory in “El Trafico” — cemented the fact that while the teams have only played each other a total of nine times, the match was one that fans of the two teams, as well as neutrals, circled on the calendar. Yet in some respects, this Sunday’s match between the two teams at Banc of California Stadium — stream LIVE on ABC/ESPN+, 3 p.m. ET — is a different proposition from those early encounters, and not just because fans continue to be absent due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The star power that was on display is now largely absent, at least for this match. There’s also the recent six-game losing streak sent the Galaxy to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, three points adrift from the eighth and final playoff spot. Not that LAFC manager Bob Bradley, with his team fourth in the West, is going to change his approach.

“The whole season is different. The challenges are so unique,” Bradley told ESPN. “But I still think you try to prepare in a way where you understand what games are all about, and there’s still a lot on the line when there’s a derby.

“In the short history, there’s been some incredible games, some amazing goals. Everybody knows that, so we try not to let all the other factors interfere with just the understanding that this game means a lot to our fans. And now, at this point in the season, our ability to step up in a big game … those are those are things we can talk about.”

The protagonists are least expected to be different this weekend. On the LAFC side, Vela has been injured most of the season, and while he’s successfully returned to training, he’s not quite ready for a competitive match. His sidekicks, Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez are still in quarantine after getting called up by Uruguay earlier this month for a pair of World Cup qualifiers. That isolation is set to end before Sunday, although Bradley said he was “not sure” if the duo would start the match as both players have been limited to individual training.

This dynamic and loss of star power is being felt even more acutely on the Galaxy side. Ibrahimovic is long gone, now banging in the goals for AC Milan. In his stead, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was signed, although with just one goal in 10 matches, it’s a move that at least so far has to be characterized as a mammoth bust. His form has been so poor that the team’s record without him (4-2-1) is considerably better than it is with him (1-7-2).

The indignities have been piling up for Chicharito as well. He’s been subbed off late in matches with the Galaxy needing a goal. He didn’t even start last weekend’s 1-0 win over Vancouver, coming on only when starter Yony Gonzalez went off injured.

In an exclusive interview, Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese spoke of how family issues in the middle of a pandemic — from the birth of his second child to the death of his grandfather back in April — have weighed on Chicharito. That said, te Kloese doesn’t deny that his high-priced acquisition has underperformed. Even after 10 appearances, there looks to be little in the way of on-field chemistry between the Mexico international and his teammates.

“[Chicharito] needs to connect to the team and the team needs to connect to him,” te Kloese said. “It’s part of his responsibility, and it’s part of the team’s responsibility and everybody involved.”

A team that is stingier defensively might be able to ride out the struggles of a star striker, but this Galaxy side has been a sieve, conceding on average two goals per game, tied with Vancouver for the second-worst mark in the league. The possible return of Dos Santos to toughen that midfield can only help, but overall, the Galaxy’s form doesn’t exactly add a shine to a rivalry match. All of this has put Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto under considerable pressure, with rumors out of Europe indicating that former club legend Robbie Keane is set to take over.

Te Kloese said that his intention “for sure” is for Schelotto to finish the season, and that looking to Keane is “not something that currently within the organization we’re discussing or even engaging.”

For its part, LAFC has yet to find the consistency that characterized last year’s Supporters Shield-winning campaign, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And yet it has still managed to remain solidly in the playoff hunt. Of late, the contributions of 16-year-old Christian Torres and Danny Musovski have given the Black and Gold a boost.

“I think we’re all excited that we’ve seen a number of young guys, when opportunities came their way, go on the field with personality with confidence, and show what they’re all about,” said Bradley.

It’s quite possible a new set of heroes could emerge on Sunday. It certainly would be in keeping with the oddities and challenges of 2020. As te Kloese said: “Within this crazy year, they’re still crazy opportunities.”