Galaxy and LAFC rivalry will continue in MLS playoffs

No matter which team advanced after Saturday’s first-round MLS Cup playoff match at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Los Angeles Football Club knew it would host a familiar challenger in the Western Conference semifinals.

“How familiar?” was the question.

LAFC could have faced Nashville SC for a second consecutive match after losing to them 1-0 on the final day of the regular season at Banc of California Stadium in what amounted to an inconsequential match for the 2022 Supporters’ Shield winners.

Instead, it will be public enemy No. 1, the Galaxy, who despite clashing with LAFC three times over the first half of the year, may appear less familiar to their Black & Gold neighbors than the team from Tennessee.

Alterations to the Galaxy roster through the summer transfer window have paid dividends for the five-time MLS champions, and Thursday’s second playoff “El Trafico” comes as they’re unbeaten in five matches and playing their best soccer during the past two years.

“There’s a lot of things where the group has settled in and has a much better sense of itself in how to be successful,” said Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, “but also the consistency has been better, which is something we lacked for a bit.”

Galaxy starters getting their first taste of El Trafico on Thursday include young Spanish midfielder Riqui Puig, who has delivered creativity and patience since arriving from Barcelona in August; Uruguayan midfielder Gaston Brugman, who made his debut in the Galaxy’s shutout over Atlanta on July 24; and veteran Uruguayan central defender Martin Caceres.

None were on the squad when LAFC last played the Galaxy on July 8.

“A lot has changed in that time,” Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond said. “We play in a slightly different way. We found momentum we maybe didn’t have at the start of the season.”

Bond’s clean sheet Saturday marked the Galaxy’s first shutout since the end of July when they still struggled with composure and cohesion in the middle of the park that could lead to conceding goals out of nowhere.

“I think we have genuine control of games and a lot of that comes from the midfield and the quality we have there,” Bond said.

LAFC also experienced well-documented changes to its roster during the transfer window, giving the Galaxy several new elements to prepare for during the short break between playoff matches.

“I think both teams have gained some experience in their teams since the last time we played and have added pieces that make each of us better,” Vanney said. “I like the way our team is playing. I like, I think, the leg up that our team has in some of these big games. We’re going to go there and play them straight up as we feel we can beat them.”

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Thursday’s conference semifinal marks the 17th contest between the clubs, with the Galaxy holding a 7-4-5 edge after winning two of three contests in 2022. Their previous playoff encounter in 2019 played out under similar circumstances, and LAFC, after capturing its first Supporters’ Shield that season, won going away 5-3.

“The one thing that I like on our side is that we felt the intensity of the playoffs and they’ve been off for however many days,” Vanney said. “We’ve now got that experience under our belt. We feel it. We’ve got that tension in our bodies and we’re going to take that into our next game.”

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