Unbeaten Galaxy enters season's first El Tráfico vs. rival LAFC with a much different look

Unbeaten Galaxy enters season's first El Tráfico vs. rival LAFC with a much different look

Published Apr. 5, 2024 9:11 p.m. ET

There are two main things that immediately stand out about the high-flying LA Galaxy, which takes on crosstown rival LAFC on Saturday night (coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX, FOX Deportes and the FOX Sports app ) in the first "El Tráfico" of Major League Soccer's 2024 season.

For starters, the record five-time MLS Cup champions are sitting undefeated atop the Western Conference after missing the playoffs three of the last four years. Second, they've done it with a revamped and exciting squad that is mostly devoid of household names and stocked instead with hungry youngsters eager to make a name for themselves in Galaxy white.

For most of MLS's first two decades as the top league in the U.S. and Canada, the Galaxy was the circuit's undisputed standard-bearer. The club won championships, including a Concacaf title. The 2007 signing of David Beckham was a paradigm shift for MLS, and for the next 10-plus years the stars kept on coming to Carson: Robbie Keane. Steven Gerrard. Zlatan Ibrahimović. Douglas Costa. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. So this new-look roster headlined (probably?) by former Barcelona prospect Riqui Puig feels different, though the results [3W-0L-3T] have been a breath of badly needed and long overdue fresh air so far.

"It wasn't deliberate that we didn't recruit star power as much as we knew we didn't have to have it," Galaxy coach Greg Vanney told FOX Sports ahead of the derby at LAFC's BMO Stadium. "We wanted players that fit the profiles of our style of play, that were going to be dynamic, that fit in with the rest of our team, that we felt we needed to be successful. Those might be guys with star power or not. We wanted to get younger, get more speed, to build a group together not just for this season, but over the next few years."


It would've been easy for his bosses to replace Vanney after the club finished 26th in the 29-team MLS last season. But they opted for stability and stuck with the former Galaxy defender and MLS Cup-winning coach with Toronto FC and, with funds available after the rich contracts of Chicharito and Costa expired, brought in highly regarded international forwards Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec. Paintsil, in particular, has been a revelation.

"Unless you're Manchester City and you can just pass the ball around teams, you need guys who can get behind defenders and open up space for the strikers," Vanney said. "We knew Joseph would do that, and he has."

It's true: the Ghanaian has two goals and two assists in six games, while Bosnian No. 9 Dejan Joveljic is tied for second in MLS with five goals. The hot start has created some badly needed good vibes after that miserable 2023. Off the field, the front office focused on repairing its relationship with its supporters, many of whom got their wish when longtime team president Chris Klein was fired last May.

Still, Saturday represents perhaps the toughest game yet this season for the Galaxy, including the campaign-opening 1-1 draw with Lionel Messi's Inter Miami. While LAFC is off to a slow start at 2W-3L-1T, Steve Cherundolo's side has reached each of the last two MLS Cup finals, winning in 2022, and remains firmly among the league's elite.

"We're in first [place], so of course we don't want to lose," Galaxy midfielder Diego Fagundez told reporters on Thursday. "It's a rivalry game. Whoever wins gets to be able to talk and say they're the best right now."

The feeling is mutual. "These games are always fun, emotional, difficult and close," LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said on Friday of a series the Galaxy actually leads with nine wins to seven all time, though they've twice been eliminated by the Black and Gold in the playoffs. "The position in the table is I think, for a week, not that important."

After several years of playing second fiddle to the new kids in town — LAFC debuted in 2018 to much fanfare as an expansion team — the Galaxy, which could be without stout Uruguayan defender Martín Cáceres because of injury on Saturday, have plenty to prove in the 22nd meeting between the Angelenos.

"This is a game that we care about and that our fans care about," Vanney said. "Certainly they've been more successful than we have been over the last few years, so it would be nice to keep this momentum that we've built going."

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United Statesmen's and women's national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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