Galaxy and LAFC set for must-win El Trafico playoff edition

No two MLS teams met more often this season than LAFC and the Galaxy, who will face off for the fourth time Thursday in the Western Conference playoff semifinals at Banc of California Stadium. But the last meeting was in July, and though everything about this game will be different, LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said nothing has really changed.

“It’s still the same game. It will still be a close game. It will still be a hard-fought game,” Cherundolo said after training Tuesday. “You’ll see much of what we’ve seen in the past.”

You will see different people doing it though. During the past four months, LAFC added five key players, including Welsh captain Gareth Bale, iconic Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and designated players Denis Bouanga and Crisitian Tello while the Galaxy acquired midfielders Riqui Puig, Gastón Brugman and defender Martín Cáceres.

LAFC was already atop the MLS standings when its new players arrived, and neither that success nor Cherundolo’s approach changed, with the team going on to win its second Supporters’ Shield in four seasons. The Galaxy, however, had a losing record, stood outside the playoff picture and were sinking rapidly in the standings when their reinforcements showed up, and they changed everything. The team switched formations and its playing style, lost only one game since mid-August and now finds itself one win away from the conference finals for the first time since 2014.

“We’ve each had plenty of additions to our roster, important additions to our rosters, since the last time we played,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said of the rematch with LAFC. “What’s in the past is in the past. What’s in the what’s in front of us is everything.”

LAFC’s midseason additions made the roster the deepest in MLS history — so deep that Bale, once the most expensive player in the world, has started only twice. That depth is a big reason LAFC (21-9-4) outscored opponents 45-15 in the second half during the regular season.

But the Galaxy (15-12-8, including last week’s playoff win) have momentum and history on their side. They are the hottest team in the Western Conference, having gone 6-1-5 during the past 12 games while LAFC lost five of its last nine, including its final match at home. And the Supporters’ Shield LAFC won, a prize that goes to the team with the best regular-season record, has become an albatross in the postseason, with only one team in the last decade winning both the Shield and the MLS Cup.

Complicating things is the unforgiving single-elimination playoff format in which one mistake, a fluke goal or a bad call can end a season.

“It’s much like a World Cup,” said Cherundolo, who led his team to the league’s best record in his first season as coach. “It’s never the best team over the past four years that wins the World Cup. It’s the team who was in form for three weeks. And playoffs are much of the same. So what you’ve achieved in the season has no bearing on how the playoffs play out.

“It is a completely different competition with different rules. There’s overtime and penalties, which does not happen during the regular season. And that’s exactly how we are treating it — as a new competition.”

One that new players will help decide.

Galaxy defender Martin Cáceres, left, peeks out to see the fans before an MLS playoff match against Nashville SC at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Cáceres, a three-time World Cup performer for Uruguay, has brought experience and grit to a Galaxy backline that gave up more than a goal only once in the six games he started while Puig and Brugman have given Vanney the two midfield pieces he was missing — a dynamic playmaker who can unlock opponents with precision passes and a stay-at-home No. 6. As a result, the Galaxy switched to a 4-3-3 formation and attack up the middle rather than from the wings, as they did before Puig and Brugman arrived. They’ve also played with far more confidence during the past two months.

“This is the best soccer that we’ve been playing,” defender Raheem Edwards said. “We meshed at the right time, which is so important in MLS Cup playoffs, to jell at the right time.”

LAFC, meanwhile, has arguably the best midfield in MLS with U.S. national team stalwart Kellyn Acosta, Ecuadoran international José Cifuentes and veteran Ilie Sánchez.

“The two new additions have really changed the game for them,” Acosta said of the Galaxy. “Midfields win games and it’s important for us to win that battle. And if we can win that battle, I think we can have a positive result.”

An expanded roster is the main difference since midsummer for LAFC. The team still plays the same up-tempo, pressing style, one that produced a conference-best 66 goals during the regular season. But now it can bring in designated player Cristian Tello or Bale, a five-time Champions League winner, off the bench.

Another thing that has changed are the stakes of the rivalry. The Galaxy won the first two meetings this season and LAFC took the only game played at Banc of California Stadium, where it won a league-best 13 times. But the regular-season El Tráfico is mainly about bragging rights between the teams, who are separated by 12 miles of freeway. On Thursday, the result is the only thing that counts.

“Every game in the playoffs is the most important because if you don’t win that game, you don’t have another,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela said. “It doesn’t matter who you play. It’s not about we play against the Galaxy. We play a playoff game.

“If we want to win the championship, we have to win three games.”

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