This meeting, the first “El Trafico” between the teams since last October’s Western Conference semifinals at Banc of California Stadium — and won by LAFC, 5-3 — is being held under what one might call the most unusual of circumstances. It’s being held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando (7:30 p.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes) and not at a sold-out stadium in Southern California. The atmosphere will be anything other than electric — hot and humid, more than anything — and last season’s MLS Most Valuable Player, LAFC’s Carlos Vela, chose to stay home to be with his pregnant wife.
But it is a derby — the Galaxy lead the series 2-1-3 — and there’s still plenty of anticipation for the showdown despite it being held just over 2,500 miles away. LAFC opened the tournament with a 3-3 tie against Houston while the Galaxy fell to Portland 2-1. A loss Saturday will all but knock the Galaxy out of the competition — their final Group F match is Thursday against Houston at 5 p.m. — and only the top two finishers in each group, along with the four best third-place teams, move on to the knockout round.
The Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who scored his first Galaxy goal in the setback to Portland, said he is looking forward to the match despite the extenuating circumstances.
“I try to play all the games like they were derbies,” he said in a video conference call Thursday. “I understand the situation, I understand the derbies with other teams I’ve played. I try to do whatever I can, whatever is best in that moment to help my team.
“Obviously to think about derbies right now in these circumstances is complicated. Even though we want to show people it’s a derby, El Trafico, they would love to be in the stadium supporting us. It’s a little complicated to play without fans, without noise and everything.
“It’s a very important match for us because we need to get the win to qualify,” he continued. “And it’s against LAFC, El Trafico, even though Carlos (Vela) isn’t here. Yeah, it’s an important match.”
Hernandez said he was disappointed he won’t get to play against his good friend. At least not this weekend.
“It’s obviously nice to be close to people you care about whether it’s playing with or against them,” he said. “It’s obviously not going to happen and it’s a shame not just for El Trafico but also for the league. We all know Carlos is MVP and he’s given a lot to this league these last two years so that it grows and has a better image worldwide.
“Of course, it’s a shame.”
The Galaxy’s Sacha Klejstan, an off-season, free-agent acquisition who will be playing in his first El Trafico, said he is looking forward to the meeting despite the setting.
“We’ll see what it’s like on Saturday night,” he said. “Not having fans here will take a little bit of atmosphere out of the game, but I don’t think the fire or the desire of the players will be at a lower level than usual.
“When you know you’re playing a derby game you’re playing your biggest rival, and you have to give everything you have and even a little more. I’m excited to play in my first derby game. It’ll be a little bit weird down here in Orlando, but it is what it is and we’re all trying to make the best of it right now.”
The Galaxy’s Joe Corona, who likely will see playing time after missing the Portland match because he was red-carded (two yellow cards) during a 1-0 loss to Vancouver on March 7, admitted the buildup to Saturday’s match feels decidedly different. For obvious reasons.
“I feel like especially in a derby like fans play such a huge role,” he said. “They’re so important because that rivalry is huge. The week going into that game it’s so big, not only for us but for the fans.
“It’s a very different atmosphere right now going into this game, but I know the importance of it and we have to win.”
Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said it’s one thing to look forward to a match against their arch-rival, but his players also must not dwell on the loss to Portland.
“You know, I think the most important thing now is to keep going forward,” he said. “Don’t stop because we lose. We need to keep building the team, growing. We have a big opportunity Saturday night with LAFC to show what we can do. We can play, we can compete.
“We can beat LAFC. The opportunity is there.”