LAFC finally did it. After three draws and two losses in five tries, the younger brother of Los Angeles triumphed over its bullying older sibling on Thursday night, defeating the LA Galaxy 5–3 and advancing to the Western Conference finals. It was the most hyped edition of El Tráfico yet, with the highest of stakes on the biggest of stages. The match itself, which has quickly become the league’s best rivalry, more than delivered, as did LAFC, who took their chance to declare themselves the best in the city and the best in all of MLS.
Before the Black and Gold could realize their triumph, it looked like LAFC’s traumatic history against this opponent might repeat itself. In three of the previous five matches between the two sides, LAFC had jumped out to an early lead, only to blow it in often-spectacular fashion. (The most memorable of these flops was the first Tráfico; LAFC at one point led 3–1 only to lose to a hat trick from a debuting Zlatan Ibrahimović, commencing his two-year troll of the city’s baby franchise.) So you can imagine the wave of tightened sphincters amongst the home supporters when, after jumping out to an early 2–0 lead by the 40th minute, the Galaxy’s Cristian Pavón got one back immediately after—
—and the full-on hermetic sealing of those buttholes once Zlatan came knocking. Ibrahimović can’t let an edition of El Tráfico go by without imposing his oversized cosmic energy onto the proceedings, and so he did 10 minutes after halftime, capitalizing on some truly horrendous defending to level the score:
In previous derbies, this is where LAFC’s wheels would come off. But this time was different. Back-to-back goals from Diego Rossi and Adama Diomande exposed the Galaxy’s sub-replacement-level back line and restored LAFC’s lead. The Galaxy got one more goal to make things interesting towards the end, but then LAFC scored again too, and that brought us the final scoreline.
After the game, a reporter asked Zlatan about his future in the league—his contract is up after this season—and he did his usual Zlatan thing. “[If I stay], then MLS is good, because the whole world will watch it,” Ibrahimović said. “If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”
If Ibrahimović does leave, it will be a tremendous loss, as the delightfully cocky Swede is the biggest and best character the league has. But in terms of the on-field performance, not even the mighty Zlatan can compete with the season, and the game, that Carlos Vela has had. When his seemingly jinxed side needed him most, Vela was there, doing what he has done all year: score, assist, and win.
The 30-year-old Mexican do-it-all attacker once again showed up in El Tráfico with two goals and an assist, giving him nine goals in six matches against the Galaxy. While his second goal was a simple tap-in, his first goal showed off his patience and pin-point finishing:
Vela also displayed some grit with his nifty assist for Rossi’s goal:
Next on LAFC’s schedule is Seattle in the conference final, with a tantalizing matchup against Josef Martínez and Atlanta United still possible in the MLS Cup final. Vela vs. Martínez would be, with all due respect to Zlatan, a clash of MLS’s finest individual performers, and as both men showed on Thursday—Martínez scored in Atlanta’s 2–0 win over Philadelphia earlier in the night—they are the very best that MLS has to offer. If this is it for Zlatan in MLS, at least the league will still be in good hands.