Galaxy, LAFC locked for must-win playoff edition of El Trafico

No two MLS teams have met more often this season than LAFC and Galaxy, who meet for the fourth time in Thursday’s Western Conference Playoffs semifinals at Banc of California Stadium. But the last meeting was in July and while everything about this game will be different, LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said nothing has really changed.

“It’s still the same game. It will still be a close game. It will still be a hard-fought game,” said Cherundolo after training on Tuesday. “You will see much of what we have seen in the past.”

However, you will see different people doing it. In the last four months, LAFC added five key players including Wales captain Gareth Bale, legendary Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and designated players Denis Bouanga and Crisitian Tello, while Galaxy added midfielders Riqui Puig, Gastón Brugman and defender Martín Cáceres.

LAFC was already at the top of the MLS standings when their new players arrived, and neither that success nor Cherundolo’s approach changed as the team won their second Supporters’ Shield in four seasons. However, the Galaxy had a losing record, was outside the playoff picture and quickly dropped in the standings when their reinforcements showed up and they changed everything. The team changed formations and styles of play, losing just one game since mid-August and now just one win away from the Conference Finals for the first time since 2014.

“We’ve had a lot of new additions to our roster since the last time we played, important additions to our roster,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said of the rematch with LAFC. “What is past is past. What lies ahead is everything.”

LAFC’s midseason additions made the roster the deepest in MLS history – so deep that Bale, once the world’s most expensive player, has only started twice. That depth is a big reason why LAFC (21-9-4) outscored their opponents 45-15 in the second half during the regular season.

But the Galaxy (15-12-8, including last week’s playoff win) have momentum and history on their side. They are the hottest team in the Western Conference, going 6-1-5 in their last 12 games while LAFC have lost five of their last nine, including their last home game. And the LAFC-winning Supporters’ Shield, an award given to the team with the best regular-season record, has become an albatross in the postseason as only one team has won both the Shield and the MLS Cup won.

Complicating matters is the unforgiving single-elimination playoff format, where one mistake, accidental goal, or poor decision can end a season.

“It’s like a World Cup,” said Cherundolo, who led his team to the league’s best record in his first season as coach. “It’s never the best team in the last four years that wins the world championship. It’s the team that has been in form for three weeks. And playoffs are very similar. So what you’ve achieved in the season doesn’t affect how the playoffs play out.

“It’s a completely different competition with different rules. There are overtimes and penalties that don’t happen in the regular season. And that’s exactly how we treat it – as a new competition.”

One where new players will have a say.

Galaxy defender Martin Cáceres looks on at the fans before an MLS playoff game against Nashville SC.

Galaxy defender Martin Cáceres (left) looks on at fans before an MLS playoff game against Nashville SC at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday.

(Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)

Cáceres, a three-time World Cup player for Uruguay, has brought experience and assertiveness to a Galaxy backline who has conceded just once more than a goal in the six games he has started, while Puig and Brugman have provided the two midfield figures for Vanney , which he lacked – a dynamic playmaker who can unlock opponents with accurate passing and a stay-at-home No. 6. As a result, the Galaxy switched to a 4-3-3 formation, attacking from the middle rather than from the wings, as they did before Puig and Brugman arrived. They’ve also played a lot more confidently over the last two months.

“It’s the best football we’ve ever played,” said defender Raheem Edwards. “We met at the right time, which is so important in the MLS Cup playoffs to gel at the right time.”

LAFC, meanwhile, have arguably the best midfield in MLS with US international Kellyn Acosta, Ecuador international José Cifuentes and veteran Ilie Sánchez.

“The two new additions really changed the game for them,” Acosta said of Galaxy. “The midfield wins games and it’s important for us to win this fight. And if we can win this fight, I think we can get a positive result.”

An expanded roster is the key difference since midsummer for LAFC. The team still plays the same fast-paced pressing style that hit the conference best in the regular season with 66 goals. But now it can bring player-designate Cristian Tello or five-time Champions League winner Bale off the bench.

Another thing that has changed is the stakes of the rivalry. The Galaxy won their first two meetings this season and LAFC won the only game at Banc of California Stadium, where they won the top league 13 times. But the El Tráfico regular season is all about showing off rights between teams separated by 12 miles of freeway. Only the result counts on Thursday.

“Every game in the playoffs is the most important because if you don’t win that game, you don’t have another one,” said LAFC captain Carlos Vela. “It doesn’t matter who you play. It’s not about us playing against the Galaxy. We’re playing a playoff game.

“If we want to win the championship, we have to win three games.” Galaxy, LAFC locked for must-win playoff edition of El Trafico

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