A week and a half after a wildly-entertaining Decision Day in Major League Soccer and three days after this weekend’s conference semifinals were set, there’s already one certainty surrounding this year’s El Trafico Western Conference champion in the league: Either the champion will be a Los Angeles-based team or the champion will be a Texas-based team.
By the end of Sunday night, just three games will be left in this season and four teams will be one step closer to hoisting MLS Cup on the afternoon of Nov. 5. This year’s Western Conference Semifinals prove interesting, starting on Thursday night with the 17th all-time staging of the El Trafico rivalry series between LAFC and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The winner on Thursday night will need to wait around for the rest of the weekend to see whether sophomore side Austin FC can defeat FC Dallas in the first-ever playoff staging of the Texas Derby (kickoff slated for 8:19 pm ET/ 5:19 pm PT on ESPN.) More on that match later this week.
Second El Trafico Playoff Match Thursday Night
Thursday night’s match between LAFC and the Galaxy (kickoff time approximately 10:25 pm ET/ 7:25 pm PT on FS1) isn’t the first time these sides have collided in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Three years ago, during LAFC’s second season in the league, Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles played host to the first playoff version of El Trafico.
That night, LAFC eliminated the Galaxy, 5-3 on the strength of a first half brace from forward Carlos Vela and a second half brace from Adama Diomande, who was substituted into the game during the 59th minute.
Not even Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s effort could save the Galaxy back in 2019, only scoring a single goal late in the first half. Ibrahimovic and Diomande are both gone from their respective clubs, but a new name has surfaced in the El Trafico rivalry.
Enter Gareth Bale for LAFC
Three and a half months ago, former Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale joined LAFC by way of transfer. During the stretch run of the 2022 MLS season, he’s appeared in 12 games for the home team in Thursday night’s semifinal, scoring two goals, including a July 23 tally against Sporting Kansas City.
Primarily, Gareth Bale has been utilized as a substitute in LAFC’s gameplan since his transfer, factoring into the starting lineup just twice in his 12 appearances. His most recent start occurred on Sept. 19, a 1-1 draw between LAFC and Minnesota United.
Although LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield thanks to an Oct. 2 victory on the road against the Portland Timbers, where Bale only played five minutes off the bench, could he play a factor in this season’s biggest matches?
Bale Might Have to Be a Substitute in El Trafico Thursday
Even though Gareth Bale was a major cog in Real Madrid’s European dominance in recent years, injuries have slowed him down. Prior to his LAFC debut this past summer, Bale only featured in two total matches for Real Madrid amid calf, knee, and back issues.
Charlie Davies of MLSSoccer.com wrote recently that the slow, metered approach that LAFC’s taken with their latest signing might need to be the way to handle Bale in the playoffs, including El Trafico.
“His fitness has been the main reason for his lack of playing time over the last two years in Europe,” wrote Davies. “Given that history, I would tread carefully and that is exactly what LAFC have done. I see Bale being used as an option off the bench in these playoffs, as a super sub. There is no need to rush him back to full health when the team has other dangerous options up top, especially since his return from international duty, where he seemed to be dealing with another fitness hiccup.”
Davies is right on the money. If Gareth Bale is injured during the playoffs, it would be bad news for both LAFC and his home country of Wales. He’s expected to feature for the Welsh national team in next month’s World Cup, and Bale wants to be in top condition for the tournament.
LA Galaxy Coming Into El Trafico on Great Form
The LA Galaxy have a short trip for El Trafico on Thursday night. It’s only an 11.9-mile distance (a 23-minute drive) between the Galaxy’s home venue of Dignity Health Sports Park, referred to by the great Mauro Ranallo as “The Punch Bowl” on Showtime Championship Boxing, and Banc of California Stadium.
While the fact that the Galaxy have been able to go to sleep in their own beds this entire week ahead of Thursday’s game is a plus for the visiting team, another boon for them is their recent form. Dating back to Sept. 17, the team has posted an undefeated record in league play.
Counting last Saturday afternoon’s 1-0 shutout victory against Nashville SC in the Knockout Round, the Galaxy have gone 4-0-1. Much like LAFC and Gareth Bale, the crosstown rivals have an international player of their own.
Riqui Puig Making Impact For LA Galaxy
Although midfielder Riqui Puig has only featured for the Galaxy since the team’s Aug. 19 3-3 draw against Seattle Sounders FC, 2022 CONCACAF Champions League winners, he’s becoming a regular fixture in Los Angeles’ plans. Puig’s started the last 11 matches and has scored three goals in the last two months upon joining the team from FC Barcelona.
MLSSoccer.com’s Joseph Lowery wrote Tuesday that Puig became the best signing in the league in 2022.
“With Puig controlling LA’s midfield (and their other opponents’ midfields,) it wasn’t a big surprise to see the LA Galaxy book their spot in the Western Conference Semifinals with a 1-0 win over Nashville SC on Saturday,” Lowery said.
Could Puig Return to Barca?
At the same time, although Puig is slated to remain in southern California with the Galaxy through 2025, Lowery cautions that the midfielder’s stint in MLS could be a short one.
“If we continue to see Puig dominate LA midfields across the United States (and Canada), don’t be surprised if Barcelona get back in on the action by using their exclusive buyback option on their former player,” he wrote. “Or they could just sit around and wait to collect their 50% sell-on clause on Puig’s eventual move out of Los Angeles.”
Should Riqui Puig catch fire down the stretch in the MLS Cup Playoffs, the interest to have him back on Barca’s roster would become higher. Thus, it stands to reason that this playoff run with the Galaxy could be his only one.
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Any rivalry game, regardless of sport or league, is always exciting to watch. El Trafico has always been an entertaining rivalry in MLS, and Thursday’s match won’t be any different.
El Trafico has already been confirmed to be the first match of next year’s regular season for LAFC and the Galaxy on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, with the famed Rose Bowl in Pasadena serving as the backdrop of only the second-ever neutral site playing of the rivalry game. Not only will a spot in the Western Conference Final be at stake Thursday, there are also bragging rights heading into the opening game next year.
Who do you see winning this playoff confrontation? Let us know in the comments below.
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