- LAFC and the LA Galaxy prove to be incapable of disappointing their audience, capping an MLS Rivalry Week that featured more spicy elements than usual.
As far as MLS Rivalry Weeks go, this edition had a bit more spice to it.
There were coaching hirings in Montreal and Colorado, the protesting of very real-life, off-field issues in Portland, records set in the least-assuming of all the matches and a pair of U.S. goalkeeping greats sharing the field for a final time.
Tight races are unfolding in the Eastern Conference (three teams are within a point of each other for the top seed) and in the Western Conference (three points separate the six non-LAFC teams in the conference's playoff picture) after a series of weekend action that was capped by another classic edition of El Trafico, and LAFC-LA Galaxy is where we'll kick off a rivalry-infused edition of The MLS XI:
I. The many layers to El Trafico
In terms of a more compelling regular fixture, you won't find one in MLS that bests LAFC-LA Galaxy these days. The starpower is immense (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela just do not disappoint), the arms race is on (welcome, Carlos Pavon and Brian Rodriguez!) and the passion surrounding each matchup (L.A. fans showing up not just on time, but early?!) just feels real. So let's dive into the many aspects of Sunday's 3-3 thriller:
- The goal from Zlatan less than two minutes in
There wasn't even a hint of "maybe he won't score against them this time," and what an introduction for Pavon, whose class was apparent on a few select runs on the night. He's the ideal attacking partner that Ibrahimovic has been clamoring for all season, one who can read his runs and come up with the special ball to put him in position to do things like this.
- The four goals within 16 minutes
Nothing changes a game like an early goal, and with Ibrahimovic's, it sprung this edition of El Trafico to life. After Latif Blessing pulled LAFC even, Ibrahimovic scored his second (he now has eight goals in five career matches vs. LAFC), Pavon scored his first in MLS and the Galaxy were in the driver's seat. At least for the time being.
- The Blessing double
Remember Blessing, who became meme fodder after Ibrahimovic pushed him into oblivion while celebrating a goal in their last meeting? Well he got his own piece of revenge with a double–including a first-half stoppage-time goal that gave LAFC the lifeline it needed going into the break. If LAFC needs two in the second half, perhaps the Galaxy are able to see out the result. Chopping that task in half with a rest and a full 45 minutes to go tilted the scales in LAFC's favor, and it showed down the stretch.
- The Vela equalizer
Ho hum, just a 27th goal in 26 games as Vela inches closer to Josef Martinez's MLS single-season record of 31. He had come close to influencing the scoreboard in the first half, with David Bingham robbing him of a trademark left-footed curler and Adama Diomande being unable to one-time home his sensational outside-of-the-boot cross, but his clinical finish in the second half wound up snatching the point.
- The Vela injury substitution
Vela was clearly livid with being substituted off by Bob Bradley in the 61st minute after appearing to successfully play through a hamstring tweak. You could see the passion in Vela as he unloaded an expletive-laden reaction, angered to be pulled off in such a big game and at such a juncture. The reason was quite simple: given LAFC's current standing, there's no need for the club to risk its superstar and subject him to potentially further harm, no matter if he was able to play through after pulling up and holding his right hamstring minutes earlier.
Bradley has his eye on the big picture, and he did the right thing in not only making the move but also immediately putting his arm around Vela and explaining himself instead of letting his star's anger fester on the bench.
- Rodriguez's sudden and eye-opening debut
LAFC didn't really miss a beat without Vela thanks to the introduction of Rodriguez, the Uruguay international who signed just before the league's secondary transfer deadline. He dribbled at defenders at will, showed a level of aggressiveness that jives perfectly with LAFC's mindset and is just another weapon in the club's loaded arsenal. If Vela is to miss any significant amount of time, there's plenty in the club's reserves to ride out the storm.
- Who really "needed" a win?
For all of the talk about LAFC's inability to beat the Galaxy, there was one team playing Sunday night still fighting for its playoff life. LAFC has already clinched its playoff spot, has the Supporters' Shield in its grasp and could wind up with the greatest single season in league history. Psychologically, beating the Galaxy would be great, especially if they meet again in the postseason, but there was no "need" for LAFC in this equation. There was, however, for the Galaxy. Blowing a two goal-lead and settling for a point while it still hovers dangerously close to the playoff line (a year after missing the playoffs altogether), is not a desired outcome, no matter if the Galaxy stayed unbeaten in five games against their city rival (2-0-3).
"We need points," Ibrahimovic said bluntly in his postmatch interview on FS1, where he also admitted to tiring in the second half. For all of the twists and turns in this latest edition of El Trafico, Ibrahimovic becoming humble and admitting fault may have been the most surprising one.
II. Protest in Portland
Providence Park is one of the more raucous atmospheres in MLS, so to see the place go lifeless for the first 33 minutes of the latest Cascadia clash between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders was quite astounding. It all emanated from MLS's fan code of conduct, which seeks to prevent any political signage (most notably the Iron Front symbol, which was banned by the Nazi government in 1933, hence the 33-minute protest) from entering the stadium. If there's something the Timbers and Sounders and their fans can agree on, it's opposition to fascism and racism, and the teams posing together before the match and supporters groups agreeing to protest together during it made for one unusual yet poignant setting in a city where protesters clashed on the streets just a week prior.
If MLS has an issue with the Iron Front flags being waved in Portland, then it's going to have to engage further in battle with arguably its most impassioned fanbase, because based on the evidence Saturday night, the Timbers Army will keep on waving them.
III. Josef Martinez scores again
Make that a record 12 straight MLS games with a goal for Josef Martinez, who particularly feasts when he plays Orlando City.
It was against Orlando that he scored the single-season record-setter last year–almost a year to the day, in fact–and he now has seven goals against the Lions in the last three seasons. Martinez is on a roll, and so, finally, is Atlanta United, which could lift another trophy at home with a U.S. Open Cup final triumph on Tuesday vs. Minnesota.
IV. NYCFC takes New York bragging rights
Lost among the battle for L.A. and Atlanta's ups and downs is the fact that NYCFC has quietly put together a very productive season, and a come-from-behind win over the rival Red Bulls only strengthens the rejuvenation under once-maligned manager Domenec Torrent.
The formula for replacing David Villa has been the combination of Heber and Valentin Castellanos (23 goals, nine assists combined), and the two were at the heart of the action again on a day when NYCFC doubled the Red Bulls' shot output, holding its neighbors to a putrid 58% passing accuracy clip and out possessing RBNY 58%-42%.
There's better balance to NYCFC than perhaps ever before, and the club is second only to LAFC in points per game in the league. It's past time to take notice of what's cooking in the Bronx.
V. Savagery, courtesy of Toronto FC fans
Now this is a tifo. And that Toronto passed Montreal in the table and sent the Impact tumbling below the playoff line with the 2-1 win only made it more clairvoyant.
VI. Hell is very real for FC Cincinnati
A 3-1 home loss to the Columbus Crew sends FC Cincinnati to a new low. The expansion club is by far the league's worst, with just 18 points in 27 games (and 64 goals allowed with still seven matches to play). Gyasi Zardes's first-half double and a fine finish from Luis Diaz took any drama out of Sunday's affair and gave Columbus a consolation win in what's been an otherwise frustration-filled season.
If there's a consolation for FCC, meanwhile, it's that it always figured to have an expansion season akin to that of a Minnesota United vs. that of a big-spending LAFC or Atlanta United. Minnesota promised success within three years while it built its squad and and its new stadium, and it's held to its word. By the 2021 season, when its new West End stadium is built, perhaps FCC will be in a similar place.
VII. Dueling, retiring U.S. goalkeeping greats
It's only appropriate that the final meeting between Tim Howard and Nick Rimando went down in the books as a goalkeeper duel. The two U.S. veterans are retiring at the end of the season and after the exchanges of mutual respect, they got back to doing what they've done for years: thwart opposing attacks.
The two combined for nine saves, but Rimando won out (RSL won 2-0 thanks to two goals deep into stoppage time), with his double goal-line denial the shining moment.
Don't look now, but in the tight, non-LAFC portion of the Western Conference playoff picture, RSL sits in second place.
VIII. A record no goalkeeper really wants
Howard knows a thing or two about maybe an obscene number of saves and the notoriety that comes along with it (see: Belgium, 2014 World Cup). But what goalkeeper wants to be peppered that many times and called into action so frequently? Vancouver Whitecaps backstop Maxime Crepeau was forced into 16 saves in a 4-1 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes, who set an MLS record of their own with 43 shots (19 on goal). Crepeau's effort, which broke Tony Meola's 22-year-old record, is commendable, but that it had to happen is certainly not enviable.
IX. The Revolution have a game-changing goal-scorer
Sure seems like it's been a while since that's been able to be unequivocally said. Gustavo Bou did it again, nailing the game-winner for the Revs vs. the Chicago Fire and vaulting the club four points clear of the playoff line. That's five goals in seven games for Bou, who won't get the recognition like Vela, Ibrahimovic and Martinez but is every bit the kind of danger man who could tilt a one-off playoff game in New England's favor (if it gets there).
X. It doesn't appear that Wilmer Cabrera was Houston's problem
During a week when Austin FC made some news and added Matthew McConaughey to its ownership group, FC Dallas made it clear that it's the one who runs things in Texas. A 5-1 shellacking of the Houston Dynamo left no doubt and ensured El Capitan remained with FCD, and this Jesus Ferreira goal was emblematic of the way the night went.
Where was the defending or the effort for Houston? So much for the coaching-change bump.
XI. D.C.'s hopes slip-sliding away
Last season's magic at Audi Field certainly feels like a thing of the past. With Wayne Rooney on the way out (and suspended this weekend), D.C. United is looking quite ordinary these days. A third straight defeat–a 3-1 loss to Philadelphia that was all but over 36 minutes in–inches D.C. toward playoff peril, and if it's not careful in its final five matches, it could wind up sending Rooney off without any fanfare at all.