LA Galaxy v LAFC: El Trafico gets new MLS season up and running

Since Los Angeles FC's inaugural MLS season in 2018, they have met city rivals LA Galaxy 17 times in all competitions, and it's fair to say they have produced some classic encounters.

A whopping 75 goals have been scored across those 17 fixtures, an average of 4.4 per game – the Galaxy have netted 38, with LAFC tallying 37. There have only been three occasions where one of the sides has kept a clean sheet.

LA Galaxy hold the narrow advantage in terms of victories, too, with seven to LAFC's five, though Steve Cherundolo's team came out on top in the last two meetings.

These teams each claimed home wins against each other last season, including LAFC's 3-2 victory in the Western Conference semi-finals en route to MLS Cup glory.

Eight of the last 16 MLS games between these teams have featured at least five goals, and with Saturday’s match presenting the perfect opportunity to make a statement of intent to start the campaign, anticipate both sides to race out of the blocks.

LAFC have won all five of their season openers. Should they extend that run, they will match FC Dallas' MLS record (achieved from 2012 through to 2017) of six successive wins in season-opening games. Coincidentally, Dallas' sixth and final win in that stretch came against the Galaxy.

However, Greg Vanney can take confidence from the fact LA Galaxy have not lost any of their last five season openers, winning four of them. Indeed, they have only lost in one of their last eight curtain-raisers (W6 D1) – that 2-1 defeat to Dallas in 2017.

Another positive omen for the Galaxy is that the reigning MLS Cup champions have started their title defences with a victory just once in the last six seasons.

The Galaxy are no strangers to getting their seasons started against the previous season’s top dogs either, with this match the fifth such time they have done just that.

Only two competitive games have passed for LAFC since they last met their city rivals, who will be out for revenge after their dramatic defeat in last year's play-offs.

Dejan Joveljic came off the bench to net a stunning 85th-minute equaliser for the Galaxy in the Conference semi-final, only for Cristian Arango to grab a stoppage-time winner for LAFC.

As is typical when it's LAFC vs LA Galaxy, it was a thriller. The teams split 25 shots between them, though LAFC mustered the better chances, finishing with 2.6 expected goals (xG) to the Galaxy's 0.4

Denis Bouanga – having signed from Saint-Etienne in France earlier in the campaign – proved too strong for his marker and slotted in calmly from Carlos Vela’s neat pass to nudge LAFC ahead, but Samuel Grandsir, who had earlier hit the bar, restored parity with a fantastic finish from just inside the area.

Bouanga's second goal – an altogether more straightforward attempt as he tucked into an empty net from a low right-wing cross – seemed to have sealed it, only for one of the best goals of the play-offs to give the Galaxy hope.

According to Opta's xG model, Joveljic only had a four per cent chance of finding the net when he took on a shot from just over 20 yards out, slightly to the left of centre, but the Serbian curled a wonderful effort into the top-right corner.

It was not to be for the Galaxy, with Arango on hand to lash home from close range and set LAFC on their path to glory.

Players To Watch

LAFC – Carlos Vela

Vela might not be the same player that he was a few years ago, but the Mexican proved he still has plenty in the tank last season.

He scored 12 MLS goals and provided as many assists, with only four other players in the league playing a direct part in more goals.

Vela outperformed his non-penalty xG by 1.7, while the former Arsenal forward created 87 chances, ranking him joint-fourth in MLS alongside Lucas Zelarayan.

His 12 assists did come from an xA of 9.8, suggesting he benefitted from some above-standard finishing from the players he set up, but the 33-year-old’s influence on LAFC’s attack was enormous – Vela was involved in 159 open play shot-ending sequences in league play in 2022, more than any of his team-mates.

Last season was the first campaign since 2019 – when he scored 36 goals – that he managed over 30 appearances in the league, and he is still one of the competition’s best players on his day.

LA Galaxy – Dejan Joveljic

Another experienced Mexican who has thrived in MLS is former Manchester United and Real Madrid forward Javier Hernandez. The 34-year-old, who has brought Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League experience to LA Galaxy, struggled to get going last season but hit a hot streak from August onwards to finish on 18 goals, bettering his tally of 17 from 2021.

Over the last two years, 'Chicharito' has played 53 league games for the Galaxy, whose win percentage without the striker in the side drops from 43.4 (23 from 53) per cent to 26.7 (four from 15), while they also score fewer goals (1.3 compared to 1.7) per game when Hernandez is absent.

However, Hernandez is a doubt for this game due to a hamstring injury suffered in training on Tuesday, and Vanney must look elsewhere for inspiration.

Who better than Joveljic, scorer of that wonderful equaliser in last October's five-goal thriller?

That goal was Joveljic's ninth as a substitute last season, with only Wolde Harris (10 in 1998) scoring more from the bench in a single season (including play-offs).

He only started seven games, making 32 appearances overall, but tallied 11 goals and added three assists. Joveljic's minutes per-goal ratio of 89.3 was the best of any player to score at least 10 times in MLS last term.

Joveljic averaged 0.82 non-penalty goals from a npxG of 0.46, while his xA of 0.2 shows he essentially provided a chance worthy of an assist every five games.

The 23-year-old will be aiming for a regular run of starts in 2023, and asserting himself in El Trafico would do his chances no harm.

Predicting El Trafico

Even if star man Hernandez plays for LA Galaxy, Opta’s supercomputer still has LAFC as slight favourites for Saturday's clash at the Rose Bowl.

Our prediction model has given LAFC a 37.4 per cent chance of success, just edging out the Galaxy’s 35.5 per cent. A draw is given a 27.1 per cent likelihood.

Since the start of 2021, the Galaxy have won three of the seven encounters, with the other four results split evenly between draws and LAFC victories.

Those two LAFC wins have come in the last two such games, though. They have never won three straight against their rivals, but what better time to start than now?