LAFC tops LA Galaxy in thrilling MLS playoff 'Tráfico' that somehow delivered on the hype

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/los-angeles-football-club/" data-ylk="slk:LAFC">LAFC</a> celebrates one of the goals from Carlos Vela (10) on Thursday as LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks on. (Kyusung Gong/Getty)
LAFC celebrates one of the goals from Carlos Vela (10) on Thursday as LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks on. (Kyusung Gong/Getty)

In a game billed by many as the most anticipated in Major League Soccer’s 24-season history, the Los Angeles Football Club got two goals and an assist from star man Carlos Vela en route to beating city rivals LA Galaxy 5-3 Thursday and advancing to the final four of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Vela put LAFC — which will face the Seattle Sounders in next week’s Western Conference final — ahead after just 16 minutes. He added a controversial second shortly before halftime (replays suggested that Diego Rossi may have been just offside on the play), but the Galaxy’s Cristian Pavon responded immediately off a beautiful feed from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who later pulled the visitors level in the second half by capitalizing on a defensive miscue and then a howler from LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller.

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But that was as close as the five-time MLS Cup champions got. Vela set up Rossi to put LAFC up for good in the 66th minute, and although Ross Feltscher pulled one back after Adama Diomande made it 4-2, Diomande added an exclamation point for LAFC’s in a single-elimination spectacle that somehow lived up the hype.

Here are three quick thoughts on the match.

LAFC finally beats the Galaxy when it matters most

From the very first El Tráfico back in March of last year, Los Angeles’ original MLS team has had the upstarts’ number. LAFC has been by far the better squad over the last two years — the Galaxy didn’t even make the playoffs in 2018 — but that never seemed to matter in this derby, which the newcomers had yet to win heading into Thursday’s contest at Banc of California Stadium.

The pressure was on the hosts. After tearing though the competition en route to a record-setting 72-point season, failing to reach next month’s final would’ve been a disaster regardless of the foe. Getting knocked out at home by the Galaxy? That would’ve been a nightmare scenario.

The nerves showed as the visitors had the better of the early play, missing a couple of chances before Vela cooly slotted the opener past Galaxy keeper David Bingham.

It looked as though LAFC would roll when Vela’s second goal was upheld by VAR. (Referee Kevin Stott didn’t even bother to check the monitor after consulting with the video assistant.)

But any thoughts of an easy night went out the window when Pavon almost immediately cut the advantage in half. And Bob Bradley’s side could’ve folded completely when Miller allowed Ibrahimovic’s equalizer to sneak through him after the break.

But LAFC seems to have learned from its previous failings in big matches. There was still a lot of time left when Rossi fired in LAFC’s third, and indeed three more goals were scored before it was over, but that strike seemed to restore the home team’s confidence while simultaneously shattering the Galaxy’s.

A quiet night for Ibrahimovic in what could be his last MLS game

Sure, Zlatan created Pavon’s goal with a clever turn out of pressure. And of course he got on the scoresheet.

But the big Swede was also subdued for most of the evening , which seemed strange considering that he had almost single-footedly tormented this LAFC since scoring twice off the bench against them in his unforgettable Galaxy debut early last year. This one was far different.

As was the case in LA’s 2-0 triumph in Minnesota in the previous round, Ibrahimovic didn’t look like his usual menacing self. He refused to talk to the media all week for the first time since his arrival in Southern California, and might well have been carrying an injury; the whispers were that he didn’t train earlier in the week.

The 38-year-old has also been linked with a move back to Europe in recent days, with Champions League participant Napoli reportedly looking to add the well-traveled icon for the second half of its season. Whatever the reason, if this was Ibrahimovic’s last match in MLS, the Lion certainly didn’t go out with a roar.

A playoff match for the ages in LA

MLS’s new one-and-done postseason format has been a smashing success so far, but it also guaranteed that one team had to lose on Thursday. Still, along with LAFC and its supporters, the sport in general and MLS in particular were huge winners on this night. This matchup had genuine mainstream buzz beforehand, and it didn’t disappoint on the field.

Eight goals were scored. A few of them were beauties. Vela and Ibrahimovic both found the net and were difference-makers for their teams. It wasn’t always the highest-quality soccer, but it sure was fun, and the atmosphere at the Banc was off the charts.

All of this made for a near-perfect advertisement for MLS. Even the result was a welcome one for everyone but Galaxy fans, with neutrals surely now hoping to watch LAFC play for a title on Nov. 10. Finale or not, though, that tilt will have a hard time competing with this one.

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