It's unusual that a team in its second year of existence would have such a monkey on its back, but such has been life for LAFC. After going winless in five previous meetings with the LA Galaxy–and having that compounded by two early U.S. Open Cup losses and a 2018 first-round playoff loss on other high-pressure stages–questions piled up about the club's ability to rise to the occasion. Those questions have now been answered.
LAFC finally earned a win over the Galaxy, riding Carlos Vela's two goals and assist, Diego Rossi's goal and two assists and Adama Diomande's two goals off the bench to a wild 5-3 win in the MLS Western Conference semifinals Thursday night. The result keeps its hopes of a Shield-Cup double alive, dumps the Galaxy out of the playoffs and more than makes up for any regular-season failings against its crosstown rival. It also may very well have ended Zlatan Ibrahimovic's time in MLS.
Elsewhere on the night, Atlanta United's title defense remains alive after a comfortable 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals, thanks to goals from stalwart stars Julian Gressel and Josef Martinez.
Here's a closer look at a night to remember for LAFC and the final four teams fighting for MLS Cup:
LAFC finally gets it done
El Trafico never ceases to amaze. That doesn't mean it's always the most technically beautiful game played, nor is the defending the centerpiece, but the entertainment value is second to none, and the biggest stars have a way of factoring in no matter what.
That was the case yet again, in an eight-goal thriller that will be cause for celebration and relief for the black and gold of LAFC.
After an 18-day layoff, LAFC came out a bit flat before Vela opened the scoring in the 16th minute with his eighth goal in the all-time matches between the two sides. He made it nine in the 40th minute with a tap-in after a gorgeous sequence spearheaded by Brian Rodriguez and Latif Blessing, only for the Galaxy to answer right back through Cristian Pavon. It flipped the script on LAFC, which benefited from a late first-half goal against the Galaxy in their last meeting en route to battling back from a two-goal hole and eventually drawing.
LAFC, which entered the night 15-0-0 leading at halftime this season, then gifted the Galaxy the equalizer. Steven Beitashour fired a backpass off Tristan Blackmon's shoulder, allowing Ibrahimovic to pounce and fire from close range on Tyler Miller. The LAFC goalkeeper had it slip through the wickets, and Ibra, like Vela, had his ninth goal in six all-time matches in the rivalry.
LAFC could have wilted after blowing another lead in this head-to-head battle. Instead, Vela turned provider in the 67th minute, coming up off the ground to muscle off Perry Kitchen and feed Rossi down the left-hand side, where the Uruguayan scored to the back post. Two minutes later, Rossi fed Adama Diomande, and that all but sealed it.
A rather spicy and fired up Bob Bradley credited "the experience of the other games and the mentality" of his team to finally overcome the Galaxy. That certainly appeared to be the case. But when it comes down to it, no matter how many goals Ibrahimovic scored over the last two seasons, it's not going to matter if his team's defense lets in more.
The Galaxy have lived dangerously despite spending considerable amounts on defensive pieces that haven't worked. The four-man alignment featuring all center backs by trade that got by in Minnesota simply couldn't handle the dynamic movement and finishing ability of LAFC.
That area was always going to be the team's downfall, and it just so happened to be the case on a night when their city bragging rights expired. If Ibrahimovic does indeed move on–his contract is up at the end of the year–you wonder when those bragging rights might return, given how dependent the club was on him for big moments, both against LAFC and other opponents, over the last two years.
Atlanta a team for the moments
There's a compulsion to compare Atlanta United to last season's team, and that will happen to any defending champion. And whereas the 2018 edition may have been a more dominant, controlling, suffocating side, the 2019 one seems to be predicated on winning with clutch moments.
It surely helps to have the talent that can deliver them regularly. In Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez, Atlanta has, on paper, two of the finest stars in the league. In Gressel, the Five Stripes have a diamond in the rough, an MLS draft pick-turned league superstar.
The three combined for both of Atlanta's goals, with Pity Martinez, who started after being surprisingly left out altogether vs. New England in the previous round, at the center of a gorgeous midfield sequence in the 10th minute. He laid the ball off for Gressel, just as Josef Martinez dragged two defenders with him to create space. Gressel displayed determination to beat onrushing goalkeeper Andre Blake to the ball and poise to chip it over him without overhitting his chance, and just like that, Atlanta was on the front foot at home, a worst-case scenario for the Union.
The chances weren't plentiful from that point on for either side. Six minutes after the opener, Brad Guzan denied Brenden Aaronson with a clutch save, while Blake's double save preserved the Union's hope at pulling even until Josef Martinez took it away.
One of the most lethal scorers MLS has ever seen, Martinez missed a couple of chances he'd expect to score, but he was spot on with his 80th-minute thunderbolt, taking down a long ball from Gressel and then firing with his left into the upper 90 to seal the result.
That Atlanta was able to carve its way through two rounds without conceding a goal–doing so without defensive rock Miles Robinson, no less–bodes quite well for the team, considering it's capable of conjuring those game-changing moments each time out.
What it means for MLS Cup
What a final four we have here. Perhaps it's no surprise that four of the top six teams in SI's most recent MLS Ambition Rankings are the last ones standing. They've put in the off-field effort and investment to excel on it, and it shows.
As it stands, the road to MLS Cup still goes through LAFC. If it can get by the Seattle Sounders, it'll host the final and a chance to cement its season as an all-time great. If LAFC loses, next in line to host would be Atlanta, followed by Seattle. Toronto would be on the road regardless given that it has the fewest regular-season points of the bunch.
In the East, the last two league champions will battle for a place in the final, and just like their playoff matches to date, injuries figure to play a factor. Toronto has gotten by New England and NYCFC without Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, finding a way to advance without the two integral pieces. They'll be needed against an Atlanta side still down Robinson, who now has another week to recover from his hamstring strain. Atlanta hasn't conceded yet in these playoffs, but a full-strength Toronto is as dynamic of an opponent as it will have faced.
The two matchups should be fascinating.