Galaxy beat LAFC again with renewed spirit and without Zlatan

CARSON, Calif. — Clashes between LAFC and the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2020 were supposed to be special due in large part to Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez going up against his longtime friend and reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela. Thanks to the pandemic, injuries and other factors, we have yet to see that duel take place.

But this is El Tráfico. It always manages to keep narratives alive.

After LAFC finally beat the Galaxy for the first time in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, it felt like momentum in the rivalry was shifting. That sense grew even stronger at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, when the Black and Gold thrashed their rivals 6-2. The Galaxy were ousted from the bubble and sent back to SoCal with questions and red flags, particularly in the defense.

But since returning to California and kicking off Phase 1 of the shortened MLS season, the Galaxy’s transformation has been eye-opening. Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side has strung together four straight wins and 11 goals without Chicharito.

Their first match a month after their final game in Orlando was against LAFC (of course), and the Galaxy went into Banc of California Stadium and emerged with a convincing 2-0 victory. Sunday’s tilt at Dignity Health Sports Park was a bit different. LAFC dominated the first half and outshot the Galaxy 14-1, yet went into the break scoreless. From there, the Galaxy flipped the switch and stormed to a 3-0 win.

The Los Angeles Galaxy celebrate Sebastian Lletget’s first goal on Sunday in a 3-0 win over LAFC. (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

Two weeks, two shutouts of the league’s top-scoring team.

“Something we talked about when we got back [from Orlando] was a mentality change,” defender Daniel Steres said. “All together we’ve really just looked in the mirror, accepted what happened and knew we all had to change the way we were playing. I think you’ve seen it pay off a little. We’re all buying in and working together. That’s probably the biggest thing, playing as a unit.”

Add that to the list of not-so-subtle shots at former Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimović. The previous two seasons, the Galaxy were too reliant on Ibra and it hurt them when facing adversity. Now you’re seeing a unit that, although it struggled early this year trying to incorporate Chicharito, is finding a style of play that benefits the collective.

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And the players aren’t shying away from that notion.

“I think you can see a big difference from last year to this one,” attacking midfielder Jonathan dos Santos said a few days ago. “The 11 on the pitch are all running in comparison to last year, where maybe we lacked unity and now you see a team that supports each other.”

Cristian Pavón has been the biggest beneficiary. The young Argentine continues to blossom and is showcasing an MVP-caliber level that those who watched him prior to arriving in MLS know all too well. Even Ibrahimović praised him last season upon his arrival, even as his style of play inadvertently made it more difficult for Pavón to shine.

“I mean, obviously it makes it easier when you’ve got somebody like Pavón, who is so dynamic, so creative, can make something out of nothing,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said after scoring a brace Sunday. “And we just sort of followed his lead in a lot of ways. I connect really well with him. And more than anything I think with time, as a team, we’re learning more about each other, we’re getting that chemistry.”

Schelotto, who also worked with Pavón at Boca Juniors in Argentina, shared similar sentiments.

“Truth is he’s playing at an extremely high level. Incomparable. Experience is helping his game grow and he’s in incredible form. Hopefully he can stay on this path,” Schelotto said.

What’s curious now is how Chicharito’s return from his calf injury will impact the Galaxy. In the little time the Mexican star has been on the pitch, we haven’t seen much, but that was also a team not playing with this kind of charisma.

This four-game win streak could be a stepping stone to even bigger things in this anything-but-normal “regular” season. Adding a couple triumphs over LAFC — against whom the Galaxy have now won four times, drawn three and lost only two — makes it even sweeter.

Whoever wins El Tráfico typically likes to boast being the “best team in Los Angeles.” Since returning from Orlando, there’s no doubt who that’s been.

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