Playing in front of a loud and boisterous crowd at the Banc of California Stadium, the second-ever postseason meeting between inter-city rivals Los Angeles Football Club and LA Galaxy carried an importance that struck far beyond the pitch.
This wasn't just another match this, was personal.
Entering Saturday's contest, the two teams have played 16 times in LAFC's five-year existence. The LA Galaxy have won seven of those matches to LAFC's four (five ended in a draw). Needless to say, the Galaxy had the psychological advantage.
The 17th meeting between the two rivals came before an audience of 22,305, an adamant display of the growing interest in Los Angeles for soccer. Most were adorned in black and gold, but the familiar white and blue of the Galaxy faithful were sprinkled throughout the stadium, including their two main supporters groups located in the visitor's section at the far end of the field.
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"This was an exciting match with a little advertisement for the MLS. This was the MLS at its' best," said LAFC manager Steve Cherundolo. "The LA Galaxy are a tough team anywhere we play them. The Galaxy had a great performance tonight, and it took our very best. The edge was our fans tonight."
After an even first half that saw the score level at 1-1, a furious flurry of goals in the final 10 minutes sent LAFC past the rival LA Galaxy 3-2 and into the Western Conference Finals.
"The way we came out in the second half, we stepped up a little higher and pressed, changed our
organization in the midfield. We had a very good hold and tempo of the game, and a lot of balls we
won in the midfield created some dangerous opportunities," said Cherundolo. "I had a good feeling that if we were
able to maintain that pressure throughout the second half we would come out the winner."
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The last time the two rivals met in the postseason came nearly three years ago on Oct. 24th, 2019. LAFC won 5-3 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to eventual champions, the Seattle Sounders. The match also marked the final MLS game for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who anointed the El Trafico rivalry during his first MLS match in March of 2018.
Denis Bouanga opened the scoring in the 23rd minute thanks to a patient pass from Carlos Vela. Bouanga positioned himself beautifully behind Galaxy midfielder, Douglas Costa, who fell on the play, allowing for the easy goal and flip.
“I'm feeling pretty good, pretty confident," said Bouanga after the victory. "Two goals that comes in a good moment and this win is a late winner but this team, as you guys know, is able to grind teams down until the whistle, until the last play. And it’s been quite good to score two goals overall and it’s a good evening for us.”
Samuel Grandsir leveled the score for the Galaxy just before half. The gut punch for the hosts came off a rebound that was headed out to Grandsir who volleyed to the far post for the game-tying goal.
Bouanga's brace restored the lead for LAFC in the 80th minute when Ryan Hollinshead's through pass to Opoku missed the mark but found the French native wide-open at the far post for the tap-in.
"Denis did what he has shown from day one. He finished plays," said Cherundolo about Bouanga. "He's a threat. He's a threat in one versus one, he's a threat in set pieces. He's physically and mentally a monster. I personally as a right back would not like to play against him. I'm extremely excited and proud to be his coach."
However, the LAFC lead would only last a few minutes. Dejan Joveljic went top shelf to the far right corner of the net for the equalizer less than five minutes later.
The Galaxy's super-sub literally entered the game less than a minute before his equalizing strike. But soccer is a cruel sport, one that's known for its karmic capabilities.
Joveljic would go from jubilation to agony as he left his man unmarked off a set piece a few minutes later in what would ultimately be the game-wining goal for LAFC
Colombian forward, Chico Arango, knocked home a rebound for the game-winning goal in the 93rd minute that sent the sellout crowd and the 3252 into a frenzy.
“This is a big rival and it’s seen in these rivalry matches, this is special," said Chico. "Being able to win it like this brings a lot of joy. It was a goal for the team. I had to be where I was but my team set up our form and defended in the correct form. This goal represents the strength of our team.”
LAFC's star summer transfer, Gareth Bale, did not dress for the game, and was not injured according to multiple reports. Bale has played just 355 minutes since joining the team in late June. He's scored just two goals across 12 matches, only two of which he started in.
"No injury to report, he should be back in training in the next couple of days," said Cherundolo on Bale.
The victory sends LAFC to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history where they will meet a Texas team in either FC Dallas or Austin FC.
The LA Galaxy's drought of not reaching the Western Conference Finals reaches eight years for the five-time MLS Cup champions.
"Our Galaxy fans have been through the best of days and the worst of days over the years," said second-year manager Greg Vanney after the loss. "I'm happy for the support we had tonight, I'm sad we didn't give them something to go home to. Hopefully, when they decompress they will be proud of this group and the direction that it's going. Our goal next year is to win the MLS Cup."