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LAFC end Galaxy’s unbeaten season as the battle for LA reaches new heights

“You don’t win these games, you play them.” 

That’s how LAFC center back Jesús Murillo described El Trafico as he began his postgame press conference – a representation the Black and Gold undoubteduly embodied on the day to emerge victorious in a hard-fought 2-1 battle over cross-county rivals LA Galaxy.

Within four minutes of kickoff in the 22nd edition of El Trafico, LAFC opened the scoring through Timothy Tillman tapping in a flicked-on corner at the back post. Nearly identical to his goal against Nashville SC a few weeks ago, Tillman has seemingly found a knack of being in the right place at the right time on corners.

“It was just my job to be right there and I got lucky the ball hit me,” Tillman humbly analyzed. “I’m happy to help the team like that.”

Conversely, set pieces have been the achilles heel for Galaxy this season. They continue to lead the league in goals conceded from dead ball opportunities with Tillman representing the sixth such goal scored against Galaxy this season.

“This one, for me again, is that we lose the near post,” Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney dissected. “They get in front of us at the near post, they skip it on, and then we lose the backpost. When you lose the near post, which has happened a couple of times, it makes all of the zone players a little bit more passive because they don’t know where the deflection is going to go and they can’t attack the ball.”

As a result of the early lead, the home side was able to settle into their defensive gameplan, preventing Galaxy’s dangerous wingers from getting in behind, and hitting in transition “which is one of the weaker parts of [Galaxy’s] game” according to LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. Galaxy dominating 68% of the possession while creating zero big chances to LAFC’s four is clear evidence of that fact.

“Teams that are stronger in possession will always have to defend counters,” Cherundolo began. “I think the best way to do that is to counter pressure. So when you lose the ball trying to immediately apply pressure to move the ball back and to avoid counter attacks. I think their formation doesn’t allow for that to happen organically or very easily.”

The other aspect with a major impact on the match, Vanney would argue, was the refereeing. Beyond the Black and Gold attempting to slow down Riqui Puig with consistent fouls and taking yellow cards to stop counter attacks through tactical fouls, the biggest moment of the match involved the referee’s on-field VAR screen. Despite equalizing just before the half hour mark through Julian Aude’s first MLS goal, Galaxy weren’t able to carry the level scoreline into the halftime break as Miki Yamane conceded a penalty by going to ground with a risky challenge on Bouanga.

“I knew [Yamane] was gonna hit me so I did the right movements,” Bouanga chose his words carefully. “I knew I had to do it so I did it and we had a penalty and I scored so that’s what we needed to do.”

A soft call at best, referee Jon Freemon was advised to check for a clear and obvious error by the VAR but after seeing the replay for himself on the on-field monitor, decided to stick with his original penalty call. Vanney, unsurprisingly, did not share the referee’s opinion.

“In this league if referees don’t call fouls, the teams that have the ball are gonna lose a lot of games. It’s the way it is,” Vanney proclaimed. “The standard of the penalty call was not the standard of the foul for the whole game. That’s the embarrassing part.”

Nonetheless, Galaxy had an entire second half to get themselves back into the game but remained lackluster in their attacking endeavors. Their possession increased in the second stanza yet they replicated the same shot total (9) while creating fewer clear-cut chances. Eventually the home side brought on central defender Maxime Chanot for his LAFC debut, further locking down defensively and preventing a late collapse such as that of a week prior in Colorado.

With their third win in four home matches this season, LAFC knocked their bitter rivals off of the top of the MLS table by ending their unbeaten season while simultaneously catapulting themselves into fifth place in the Western Conferece, just two points behind Galaxy in second. For seemingly the first time since LAFC entered the league, both Los Angeles clubs look poised to hang around the top of the Western Conference table all season, furthering one of the most exciting rivalries in American sports.

“It’s great,” Cherundolo offered his opinion on major MLS matchups such as El Trafico. “The more games we have like this, the better the league will get and I’ve always been a proponent of trying to make things better and make our football better, make games more exciting for fans, trying to win fans overseas, but the only way to do that is to increase the quality on the field, not advertising or anything like that. The only thing that matters is the quality on the field.”

On Saturday, the quality of those in Black and Gold kits was slightly above that of the men in white but there’s a long season still yet to come as the battle for Los Angeles supremacy in 2024 is well and truly undwerway. As if this derby needed more fireworks, the bitter rivals will meet again, as they did last season, at the Rose Bowl on the Fourth of July.

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