El Tráfico bolsters LAFC despite loss to LA Galaxy

LAFC brought guts, aggression and a raucous supporters’ section to StubHub Center. But the Galaxy brought Zlatan.

The LAFC fans pouring out of StubHub Center were grinning.

 

Sure, their team had just given up a 3-0 lead in a rivalry game, losing in heartbreaking style to at the hands of a late-game substitute by an international superstar. But the fans in gold and black didn’t seem to care. They were high fiving, heckling Galaxy fans, hoisting each other up in bear hugs. Some didn’t stop singing until they reached their cars, chanting the same phrase as a form of greeting and farewell — “One team in LA.”

 

LAFC lost its first game in history and the first bout of the cross-town rivalry derby with the Galaxy on Saturday. After building a 3-0 lead, the loss came at the hands of Zlatan Ibrahimović, the Swedish star who joined the Galaxy only two days before. Jet lagged and unadjusted to the team, Ibrahimović put on one of the best shows of his life, netting two breathtaking goals in 20 minutes.

 

The game was great on its own — two flashy goals by Carlos Vela, a pitted battle in the midfield and an equally raucous battle in the stands between supporters. Thanks to Ibrahimović, it became a classic, setting the stage for El Tráfico to quickly become one of the most dynamic rivalries in the MLS.

“At the end of the day, we are still a new team and one that will learn from tough moments – today was one of them,” Vela said. “Today will be a good game to reflect and see what we can do to become better because we are an expansion team. Don’t forget – we are still building our team and we still have a lot to show.”

 

LAFC started the game with a punch in the mouth. After dominating possession in the opening five minutes, Vela crushed a shot with the left foot across the box, curling the ball into the left upright corner. As soon as the ball hit the net, the LAFC fans mixed into every section of StubHub Center lit up with a deafening roar.

Vela added another goal in the 26th minute with a whacky 360-degree turn-and-finish in the box, dodging the goalkeeper and a handful of defenders to net his first brace of the season. An ensuing own-goal by the Galaxy in the 48th minute sparked a fire in the LAFC supporter section.

For many fans, this was their first chance to see their team in the flesh. The result was a sea of supporters ready to make themselves heard. Members of the 3252, a union of the top five supporters clubs, swarmed the southwest corner of the stands an hour before kickoff. For the next three hours, the section pulsed with chants and taunts to the beat of two drummers, waving gold and black flags and hoisting “Heart of LA” scarves.

“From the beginning, you looked at the corner and you felt the passion of our supporters,” head coach Bob Bradley said. “Even at the end, they were there, knowing that we’re growing as a team. We look at that and know… we’re going to fight for them.”

 

The team fed off of the excitement, swarming on attack and pressuring at every point of the pitch. LAFC cheated on defense in order to bombard the Galaxy on the counter, a tactic that paid off in the first half but punished them in the final minutes of the game.

That energy was felt throughout the first 70 minutes of the game. At various times, the 3252 started an “LA” chant, and supporters throughout the stadium bellowed back “FC” in unison. The chant drowned out both of the Galaxy fan sections, as did the chant of “Tres a Cero” as LAFC seemed poised to walk away with a massive rivalry victory.

Before kickoff, many fans said the same thing — they wanted a high intensity game, with big saves, hard hits and plenty of goals. They also wanted to see Ibrahimović, and made sure that he heard it for 72 minutes, chanting “We want Zlatan” as the lead grew. A goal by Sebastian Lletget in the 61st softened those jeers only slightly. With a 3-1 lead, the supporters and players of LAFC alike wanted to test themselves against the best of the best.

In both cases, the fans got exactly what they asked for.

“They were saying, ‘We want Zlatan. We want Zlatan,’” Ibrahimović said. “So I gave them Zlatan.”

Ibrahimović entered the game in the 72nd minute, earning one of the loudest cheers to ever shake StubHub Center. Every fan — in black and gold and blue and white colors alike — stood for the superstar as he jogged onto the pitch for the first time.

In seconds, he changed the entire mood of the game. LAFC had already begun to lose steam, taking only four shots in the second half and giving up possession to the Galaxy. The defense clearly adjusted with Ibrahimović on the field, and the Galaxy made them pay for it, with Chris Pontius notching a goal a minute after the star entered the game.

From there, it became the Zlatan show. On a counter, he volleyed a shot with a single touch, scorching a shot 40 yards into the net to tie the game. The stadium shook with roars from the fans, and similar reactions rippled out throughout the MLS.

Although LAFC had several chances in the final minutes — primarily a Marco Ureña strike that smacked into the left upright — the team was shaken and never quite recovered. Then, in stoppage time, Ibrahimović came on again, leaping skyward and sending in a vicious header to complete the 4-3 comeback.

Yellow and blue confetti and smoke filled the stadium as the final seconds ticked down and the Galaxy took home the first win of the derby. A day before, Ibrahimović took out a full page in the Los Angeles Times with a single message to Galaxy fans: “You’re welcome.” On Saturday, he delivered.

The final score was not what fans had hoped for as they entered StubHub in masses two hours before. Yet for both the fans and the team, the first round of El Tráfico was permanently cemented as a classic, win or lose. And the rematch is only a few months away.

“We lost momentum and [there were] some incredible moments by Ibra,” Bradley said. “But we’ll learn. This day’s gonna go a long way towards making us a really good team.”