CARSON, Calif. — Somewhere trying to avoid freeway traffic on side streets of Los Angeles during a busy Friday evening, a subtle reminder popped up.
“There it is, look at the sign – since ’96,” said Irving Valencia, wearing a Galaxy jersey and riding in an Uber with two 12-packs of Modelo.
The destination was Dignity Health Sports Park, the origin was a little section of the city tucked between Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles called Rampart Village.
That drive is about a half-hour on a good day, but el trafico heading to watch El Tráfico between the LA Galaxy and LAFC more than doubled that time.
Valencia explained he had a $100 bet with a friend who’s an LAFC fan. Later in the parking lot, where he was joined by his girlfriend, she upped the stakes throwing another $50 bet on the game.
He joked about it becoming an expensive night. Without hesitation, she responded, “You gotta have confidence.”
There for sure wasn’t a lack of that on the pitch for the Galaxy in their 3-2 statement win over rival LAFC, which helped them remain unbeaten in the four times the teams have met. Then again, “confidence” and “Zlatan Ibrahimovic” are synonyms anyway.
Ibra, with help from the media, helped set the stage by calling himself “a Ferrari among Fiats” and throwing shots in many directions, all while flashing that signature grin of his. You know, the one that makes you unsure whether to laugh or actually be terrified so you end up doing both. He became the center of attention as he always strives to be. The game, statistically, had all the ingredients for a disastrous Galaxy night.
LAFC leads the league in points and goals behind Carlos Vela, who is undoubtedly the frontrunner for MVP. The Galaxy had just lost yet another home game in embarrassing fashion, being outshot 32-5 by the San Jose Earthquakes. Not exactly the right time to be stirring the pot ahead of a derby. Except, of course, if you are Zlatan.
Insulted at being asked if he still thinks he’s the best player in MLS, the 37-year-old Swede answered "by far.”
As if his words weren’t persuasive enough, he went and scored a remarkable hat trick, raising his season goal total to 16, sending a vivid message. Arrogance? He prefers confidence.
“Please do not offend me, I don’t need to prove nothing,” said Ibrahimovic after being asked about his comments during the week. “I have a lot of respect for Vela, he’s a good player but you did one mistake – you compared him with me. That was your biggest mistake.”
The mistake was on anyone who doubted Zlatan wouldn’t keep that same energy and show off while the soccer world was watching. This is the same freak of nature that bounced back from a gruesome knee injury, landed in Los Angeles and days later turned the league upside down by scoring one of its most memorable goals, helping rally to win the inaugural El Trafico.
“I told you, I will make [LAFC] famous and I will make them remember me,” Zlatan said in an on-field postgame interview Friday. “They already remember me after my first goal against them.”
While the home team soaked in the moment in their respective locker room, LAFC players made their ways toward the bus. Adama Diomande and Mark-Anthony Kaye walked together. Lee Ngyuen was accompanied by one of the members of the coach staff. And then manager Bob Bradley emerged by himself making the stroll down the long hallway, often looking down at the ground as he disappeared into the distance.
The body language of Bradley and players alike said it all: shock, frustration, defeat.
The Black and Gold, in terms of their immediate impact on the league, do deserve plentiful praise. But those aforementioned feelings are becoming all too familiar within the club when faced with winning impactful games.
In three cracks at the Galaxy last season, they struck out. They were eliminated from the 2018 U.S. Open Cup in the semifinals after a loss in penalty kicks to the Houston Dynamo. In the MLS Cup Playoffs, they were upset in the first round at home by Real Salt Lake.
They were shut out and bounced from the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals nine days ago by the Portland Timbers. Now with a fresh pitch count against the rivals, they’re already down 0-1.
“Obviously losing is always tough and it hurts more than losing to other teams,” said Vela after the game. “We know that to be leaders and champions we need to learn from our errors and bad moments. That’s when we will find out if we are really the best team in the league.”
Statistically they remain atop MLS. When it comes to the Clasico Angelino though, bragging rights belong solely to the Galaxy and their fans, including Valencia and his girlfriend, who are now $150 richer. Meanwhile, fans of the Black & Gold head back a few miles north, fittingly sitting in traffic, remembering why they chose their alliance to LAFC.
“We knew the Galaxy had been here for a while, but when you gotta drive to Carson it doesn’t really feel like L.A.,” explained 3252 supporter Rick Camarero. “We like to think we’re the L.A. team.”
Next time you’re driving around the city look up and you’ll eventually see a sign that reminds you otherwise – since ’96.
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