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El Tráfico dogfight: LAFC find “required level” to end LA Galaxy’s unbeaten start | MLSSoccer.com

El Tráfico dogfight: LAFC find “required level” to end LA Galaxy’s unbeaten start | MLSSoccer.com

El Tráfico took a blue-collar turn on Saturday night, and LAFC were the beneficiaries.

Hosting an LA Galaxy side who entered Matchday 8 atop the overall MLS table, the Black & Gold dispensed with the glitz to claim bragging rights in 2024’s first edition of the cross-Los Angeles showdown.

They did so in the most economical way possible, snatching an early lead via Timothy Tillman’s 4th-minute opener, responding to Julián Aude’s equalizer with a contentious Denis Bouanga penalty kick and riding out plenty of Galaxy possession en route to a 2-1 victory at BMO Stadium that deals the visitors their first loss of the season.

“You know, these games, you don’t play them, you win them,” said LAFC center back Jesús Murillo in Spanish afterwards. “It was one of those games where you have to be 150% committed, to give that extra to win. We played at the required level.”

Tactical battle

This rivalry has rightfully inspired massive hype since LAFC took the field in 2018, mostly for very Hollywood reasons: wild drama, big names like Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and most of all, goals galore – an average of 4.3 per game in its first 21 renditions across all competitions.

It was a rather different story this time around, as the winners rode two set-piece tallies and rugged defending. Readily conceding 60% of ball possession to the Gs, LAFC mostly sat deep and dared their adversaries to break down their compact shape, while always posing their usual danger in swift transitions via Bouanga, Mateusz Bogusz and Cristian Olivera.

“Teams that are stronger in possession will always have to defend counters. And I think the best way to do that is to counter-pressure, so when you lose the ball, try to immediately apply pressure to win the ball back and to avoid counterattacks,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo.

“I think their formation doesn’t allow for that to happen organically or very easily. But it gives them advantages with the ball. So that’s up to Greg [Vanney], who’s done a great job so far this year with the group. So that’s up to him to decide that, but certainly things with our speedy wingers and with Mati playing the 9, we have the tools to break that down.”

New complexion

The hosts blocked eight shots, committed 20 fouls and soaked up four yellow cards to stymie the Gs’ talented attack as the 3252 supporters’ section hooted their approval in the typical tribal fashion of this fixture.

“I think for both of us, that we consider [ourselves] warriors and we like these kind of games,” said LAFC fullback Sergi Palencia with relish as he sat next to Murillo in the postgame press conference, fielding questions in two languages. “We try always to perform better than ever in those games. We feel the crowd very, very present. We love that game – blocking every shot, giving tackles to good players. We always want to face the good players, to challenge ourselves, and today we did. We were successful, so it’s the best night for our defenders.”

Notably, seven of those LAFC fouls were inflicted on playmaker Riqui Puig, and five on lively winger Joseph Paintsil.

Palencia noted much of their preparation on the training ground had been spent immersed in scouting the tendencies of LA’s creative threats, while also sifting through the wreckage of last week’s 3-2 comeback loss to the Colorado Rapids, learning lessons and doling out painful, occasionally “angry” doses of accountability.

“This was different from last week in Colorado, [where] too many fouls got us into trouble. We felt comfortable with set pieces today,” said Cherundolo. “So fouls sometimes aren’t the worst thing. I would much prefer a foul than letting Riqui Puig walk the ball through midfield. And I’m not saying we’re targeting anybody by any means, but being physical against the Galaxy and teams like them is very important.

“It’s not just something that we do at LAFC; this is something that teams do around the world against Manchester City, Arsenal, the better teams in the world – you have to play physical as well. And I didn’t see anything dirty.”

Big call

LAFC’s boss then started to delve into his views on the opposition’s comportment before catching himself, a brief smile flashing across his face as he seemed to take delight in steering clear of anything that could stoke controversy.

Vanney, the Galaxy’s coach, felt he had little choice but to address that, lamenting the effect he perceived refereeing decisions to have on the tenor of the match. Questions lingered about the extent of the contact defender Miki Yamane made on Bouanga on the penalty decision, which clearly frustrated the visitors given the physical treatment meted out to his colleague Maya Yoshida on several restarts.

“The referee couldn’t find his yellow cards for a hell of a long time, so it just plays into their hands,” said Vanney. “I’ll say it over and over again: In this league, if referees don’t call fouls, the teams that have the ball are going to lose a lot of games. It’s the way it is.

“The standard of the penalty call was not the standard of the foul for the whole game. … But we made mistakes, we didn’t play great, we didn’t find the right shape in the beginning of the game, which then afforded them some opportunities to counter.”

Power balance

In what Soccer America’s pregame coverage had called “a bizarro-world landscape” compared to the last several years of the rivalry, the Galaxy were riding high ahead of this encounter, while LAFC treaded water in mid-table, hampered by an uncharacteristically leaky back line.

But it felt very much like the Galaxy’s bad old days when they zoned out on that early corner kick, everyone in white disastrously static as Ilie Sánchez ghosted to the near post to flick Bogusz’s delivery to the back post, where Tillman was left all alone to bundle home at point-blank range. For all the sound and fury of the following 90 minutes, that early moment proved decisive – and for all their possession, the Gs were also markedly second-best in expected goals, 3.4-1.4, by full time.

In total, it was a blueprint for how to stifle the Galaxy’s expensive weapons, and a microcosm of how Cherundolo has evolved the Black & Gold since taking over from Bob Bradley in 2022.

“You saw that after we scored, the Galaxy just gained a little bit of weight over the game, they gained more possession, they had the ball more, we had to suffer a little bit. But that’s what we spoke about before the game, we knew we’d have to suffer at special times of the game,” said Tillman.

“Today we just accepted that and kept defending, kept working against the ball. And that’s what helped us get the win.”

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