Manufactured rivalries don’t work: LA’s El Tráfico is an exception

The fiercest derbies take decades to build. They have intangible qualities that goes beyond soccer and are wrapped up in all sorts of historical and cultural factors. The clásico, first played in 1902, has become a statement on national and regional identity, while the Old Firm derby dates back to the 19th century and is as much about religion as it is soccer. El Tráfico, however, is an exception to the rule. Despite being only four-years-old, and manufactured by Major League Soccer, it is a very real rivalry.

Maybe Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored twice off the bench on his debut in the inaugural El Tráfico fixture, is the reason matches between Los Angeles FC and the LA Galaxy matter. He certainly helped light the rivalry’s fuse. More likely is that MLS tapped into an existing soccer community that felt unrepresented by giving LA a second franchise in 2018 and pitted it directly against an established superpower of the American game.

MLS tried before and failed. Chivas USA played from 2005 to 2014 as Los Angeles’ second MLS franchise. The theory was that the sister club of Chivas, one of Mexico’s most popular teams, would give the city’s huge Latino population a vested interest in American soccer. In reality, however, fans rejected Chivas USA, who finished their final MLS season with the lowest home attendance in the league. Los Angeles never had a derby worth its name.

Now it does and Chivas USA’s failure to connect is in stark contrast to the energy generated at Banc of California Stadium since LAFC’s entry to MLS in 2018, with the club’s home attendance within the league’s top 10 in each of their five seasons to date. Thursday’s Western Conference semi-final will be another spectacle. Tickets will be hard to come by.

LAFC and the LA Galaxy already know they will open the 2023 season against each other at the Rose Bowl. MLS has a new $2.5bn broadcast deal with Apple TV to promote and there was only one fixture the league wanted to use to attract eyeballs. If the historic 90,000-capacity stadium, which hosted the 1994 World Cup final, sells out it would set an MLS attendance record.

MLS has enjoyed mixed fortunes in its efforts to create rivalries across the league in recent years. The Cascadian rivalry between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers is American soccer’s most historic, and maybe even biggest, but MLS merely transplanted a fixture that can be traced back to the 1970s and the NASL.

New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls have produced some compelling contests since facing each other for the first time in 2015, but the Hudson River Derby doesn’t have the edge of El Tráfico. Nor does the Texas Derby (FC Dallas-Houston Dynamo), the Canadian Classique (CF Montreal-Toronto FC), the Atlantic Cup (DC United-New York Red Bulls) nor the Rocky Mountain Cup (Colorado Rapids-Real Salt Lake). Nothing comes close.

El Tráfico is more than just a match, it is a question of identity. LAFC prides itself on being the team of the Angeleno. Everything from the downtown location of Banc of California Stadium to the design of the badge, which features the famous wings of the City of Angels, has been geared towards a specific community. LAFC believe they are the team of the people – their people.

On the other hand, the LA Galaxy exist to win – and they are very good at it, having lifted more MLS Cups (five) than any other franchise. They are the Real Madrid of MLS and stand a good chance of achieving their own ‘La Decima’ this year with Greg Vanney’s team peaking at just the right time as the postseason takes off.

Both teams are strong. LAFC will kick off Thursday’s derby as the 2022 Supporters’ Shield winners and No 1 seeds for the playoffs. Steve Cherundolo has more talent at his disposal than any other MLS head coach right now with LAFC so stacked in attack that Gareth Bale has been largely limited to substitute appearances since joining in the summer.

The LA Galaxy have won four of their last five games, including Saturday’s round one victory over Nashville. They too made a big-name summer signing, luring an attacking difference-maker from Spain in the form of Riqui Puig. Unlike Bale, though, the 23-year-old has changed the landscape for his new team – the Galaxy were ninth in the West when the midfielder joined from Barcelona, but finished the regular season in fourth. Puig has lifted the LA Galaxy’s level by almost every metric.

If Thursday’s El Tráfico produces goals, as it usually does, it’s likely Javier Hernández (11 goals in his last 13 games for the Galaxy) and Carlos Vela (four goals in his last four games for LAFC) will be involved. Chicharito and Vela might be former Mexico teammates, but this rivalry has placed them on different sides of a divide.

“Our fans know what it means, their fans, they know what it means,” Julian Araujo said in anticipation of Thursday’s match, and he’s right. This is why El Tráfico carries greater weight than any other MLS rivalry at this moment in time. The fixture might only be four years old, but like any great rivalry it has roots that go deep.