Four goals in the first 16 minutes. A Zlatan brace. Carlos Vela yelling at his manager. The fifth edition of El Tráfico, the Los Angeles Derby between LAFC and the Galaxy that capped off MLS’s Rivalry Week on Sunday night, wasn’t just the best game of the season—it was an example of what MLS can be at its best.
It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. Just two minutes in, it looked like LAFC’s lack of success against their cross-town rivals would continue. In the four previous matches between these two teams, the Black and Gold have never beaten the Galaxy. So when Zlatan Ibrahimović, LAFC’s self-anointed tormentor, slotted in an inch-perfect low shot past goalie Tyler Miller, it felt like this game would follow a familiar script:
LAFC fought back, with Latif Blessing tying things up with a tap-in just ten minutes later. Three minutes after that, Zlatan added another goal, before new signing Cristian Pavón doubled the Galaxy’s lead the following minute:
Four goals in rapid succession and we were off. Unlike the actual L.A. traffic that bestows this derby its nickname, the hallmark of Sunday’s match was both teams flying up and down the field in both directions. Neither team could defend, but both have some of the best firepower in the league. LAFC are especially ruthless in attack, having now scored a league-leading 74 goals this year, a whopping 23 more than the team closest to them on the scoring charts. It was no surprise when they made it 3-2 right before halftime through Blessing once again.
Of course, an LAFC match wouldn’t be complete without an intervention from Carlos Vela. In the 53rd minute, the Galaxy somehow let the sure-fire MVP slip behind their defense unencumbered, and Vela punished them with the tying goal:
The Mexican star’s night didn’t end so spectacularly, though. After picking up a slight knock, LAFC manager Bob Bradley played it safe by subbing Vela off. To say Vela was unhappy is an understatement:
According to my amateur lip-reading skills, it sure looks like Vela says “Fuck that shit. That’s fucking bullshit. What are you doing?” Spicy!
For almost the entirety of the last half-hour, LAFC had the Galaxy pinned deep in their own half of the pitch, but LAFC’s finishing was atrocious. LAFC finished with 27 total shots, but only 10 on target. And yet, because the home team was chucking eight or nine players forward for every attack, the drama kept building with every LAFC barrage and subsequent Galaxy counter-punch. By the end of the game, Old Man Zlatan was clearly gassed, as evidenced by his decision to “support” one late, Pavón-led counter by slowly walking up the pitch. All that late-game attacking wouldn’t amount to much, though, and so the game finished at 3–3.
Alongside the rivalry between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders, El Tráfico has quickly become one of the league’s premier rivalries. You have a huge, soccer-mad city with two star-laden, aesthetically compelling teams that legitimately don’t like each other and have the attacking firepower to make their battles explosive. Every El Tráfico so far has been a close, intense contest. Every match save one has been high-scoring, and even the two wins for the Galaxy have been enthralling one-goal victories. More than any other pairing in MLS right now, the Los Angeles derby provides can’t-miss action that has star power in concert with fan-friendly play on the field.
MLS will never be the Premier League, but it doesn’t need to be in order to create an entertaining, thriving league in its own right. Things like the burgeoning El Tráfico rivalry and the continued ascendance of Atlanta United are testaments to what MLS is and can be when everything comes together just right. It’s not the best, but it’s the best of MLS. And on nights like Sunday, that is plenty good enough.