El Tráfico Supremacy: LAFC Turn Rose Bowl Into Black & Gold Party

Bouanga Rose Bowl 070424

They’d both worked relentlessly over 90-plus minutes, much of it on the defensive side against an opponent who’d owned the majority of possession.

But when the final whistle blew on their 2-1 El Tráfico victory over the LA Galaxy, Kei Kamara and Mateusz Bogusz – the duo who combined to produce the game’s all-important opening goal – still had enough left in the tank to lead their LAFC teammates on one more sprint down the Rose Bowl pitch.

This was a joyous run, capped by leaps over the advertising boards and perimeter wall, up into the Black & Gold section of the 70,000-plus crowd to loudly celebrate another derby win with their supporters, arm in arm.

Unbeaten run

With those Los Angeles bragging rights retained, the Fourth of July party was well and truly lit in Pasadena, and justifiably so. This was LAFC’s 10th consecutive match without defeat, their second El Tráfico triumph of the season and their sixth W in their last eight clashes with their crosstown rivals across all competitions.

“I think it's always one more, right?” LAFC defender Aaron Long said of his side’s ongoing hot streak postgame. “You always want one more, and at the end of the game you celebrate. You can acknowledge that we're on a great run right now, and then as soon as it's time to prepare for the next game, it's ‘just one more, just one more.’

“That's the mentality of the group right now, and it's been amazing how we can get up for these games, and this one here is such an easy one to get up for,” he added. “When we play a derby match like this, you can see our fans out there were absolutely incredible. So, congratulations to all them. I hope they all celebrate tonight. We all deserve a good night.”

Just like their previous Tráfico win in April, LAFC leveraged a first-half corner-kick goal into an advantage they would not relinquish, the game states working in their favor despite a whopping 671 total passes completed by Riqui Puig and the Gs.

“I thought we were very good in the first half,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo. “We executed our game plan perfectly.

“Judging from what I see in the locker room, before the game, at halftime and after the game, this is a very healthy group, mentally, and they take care of each other. It's a tough group to beat.”

Air Kei

Flashing the stupendous aerial ability that’s helped power him up to second on the all-time MLS scoring chart, Kamara vaulted improbably high into the night sky to nod Bogusz’s delivery past John McCarthy in the 40th minute.

“Yeah, he's got a good leap on him, that guy,” young Galaxy center back Jalen Neal later said of Kamara, “and a good header. But I could have done a much better job guarding him, getting more physical with him, not letting him get his run going, and obviously getting a bump on him before he could get that leap.”

Kamara turns 40 in two months. He’s closer in age – much closer – to Cherundolo than he is to Bogusz or Neal. He’s widely expected to be relegated to the bench when French World Cup winner Olivier Giroud dons an LAFC kit in a few weeks. Yet he just keeps producing, this time against the team whose stadium sits on the campus of his alma mater, Cal State Dominguez Hills, the stadium where he used to work as part of the operations staff to earn extra money while in school.

“He's incredible, man,” said Long of Kamara. “When the service is right, it's kind of unstoppable. Like, when he gets that running head start and he gets the jump, no one's going to be able to jump with him. So we have to be good in terms of freeing him up. We know teams are watching this, I'm sure Galaxy saw from the past games how good he is in the air. Everyone knows how good he is in the air. But again, when the ball is right and he times it well, it's really hard to stop. Almost impossible to stop.”

Cherundolo had planned to substitute his veteran No. 9 when his energy levels flagged. Yet they simply… didn’t.

“It’s not normal. We keep waiting to sub him out: When is he going to get tired?” said the coach. “Sixtieth [minute] came and went, 65th, 75th, 85th – he’s still moving, he’s still effective, and he was working defensively for the team. And he's always a threat at set pieces, both offensively and defensively. So he survived the 90 minutes tonight.”

The LAFC Way

When Denis Bouanga converted a penalty kick mere moments after Kamara’s goal, the result was nigh in hand, LAFC’s sturdy collective shape given all the lead they needed even after the ensuing 45 minutes of Galaxy fightback was marked by Gabriel Pec’s 56th-minute tally.

“There are different ways to control the match. You can control the match with the ball, you can control it without the ball. You can control it in transitions, you can control it in set pieces, you can control the scoreline,” explained Cherundolo.

“Possession is one of many statistics that the Galaxy is traditionally very good in; we are not. I think we've proven in the past couple years, and other teams around the world have proven, that that's not the only statistic that matters.

“We take pride in not letting teams in behind our back line and not really letting teams inside our box. That's something we work on, we talk on, and if you can’t get the ball in the box, then you’re not going to score,” Cherundolo later noted. “If you take a deep dive into statistics, defensively we've been fantastic over the past eight weeks.”

Ilie Puig LAFC Galaxy 070424 Rose Bowl

Galaxy falter

As much progress as the Galaxy have made in 2024, as tight as both of these SoCal showdowns have been, as tenaciously as the Gs fought back during the second half to nearly claim a share of the points, this Independence Day test was one they just weren’t quite ready for yet.

“We were down 2-0 because we deserved to be down 2-0,” said Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, repeatedly alluding to the idea of “death by 10,000 passes,” and not in a good way. “We have three shots in the first half, all of them from 25 yards away. I don't know how many touches we had inside of their box, not many. We had six or seven guys in the build and three to four guys, maybe, in the attack. I mean, it's never going to hurt them. They're a good enough team to manage that. It was just so passive. And yeah, it just wasn't going anywhere. You're not going to win, especially against good teams, doing that.

“You can't have first halves like we had today, you can't, because they're a team that can capitalize.”

Might this Rose Bowl El Tráfico become an annual event? Even those on the wrong end of the final result walked away in awe of the powerful emotions packed by the first two editions at the historic venue (LA won last year's match before a record 82,110 fans).

“There's only so many opportunities you have in a season to create an environment like this, where it kind of feels like a playoff atmosphere, feels like a game bigger than just another derby or another MLS game. It feels like a potential final, or it feels like something a little more special,” said Vanney.

“It's good for the players to go through these days, and I think it benefits them in the end when the games are really on the line and they do feel big. This is a moment you can’t replicate every weekend.”

Bragging rights

One thing's for certain: LAFC, now top of the Western Conference with 43 points, aren't shying away from Thursday's rivalry implications.

"Both of us coming in with the same points – it was a game for us to determine who Los Angeles belongs to, and we took it," said LAFC fullback Sergi Palencia. "Respect to the Galaxy, who have good players and a good team, but today was our day."

Added Kamara: "This is what soccer is about, man, seriously. For me, I grew up in this LA area. I'm not a homegrown player, but I feel like a homegrown player right now. To be able to play in this arena with this packed crowd and make history like that – Black and Gold, baby."

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