When Push Came To Shove

LAFC’s hard-fought home result against the Galaxy capped a Saturday to remember in the heart of Los Angeles 

04062024 LAFC LAG Bouanga Tillman Palencia Long

It was an afternoon of reunions, and it began early, with fans of LAFC and the Galaxy—the former wearing black, the latter in white—shouting echoing taunts at one another across BMO Stadium two hours before the 22nd installment of MLS’ most competitive and emotion-soaked rivalry kicked off. 

LAFC hero Gareth Bale was reunited with the last club he played for before the international football star’s retirement a year ago, receiving a pregame ovation from the 22,000 Black & Gold fans on hand at BMO Stadium, and embracing his longtime friend and current LAFC goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, his teammate for two seasons with Tottenham Hotspur.

04062024 Bale falconer

But the main forces reuniting on Saturday were Major League Soccer’s two southern California-based clubs – fifty men whose black and white kits matched their respective supporters’ sections and whose intentions stood bitterly opposed to one another. When it was over, LAFC (3W-3L-1D) had emerged the victors; the 2-1 win lifting the defending Western Conference champions into fifth place in the conference table while the Galaxy (3W-1L-3D) suffered their first loss of 2024 and fell from the top of the Supporters’ Shield race.

The scoring began the same way it has in three of LAFC’s seven games this season, with midfielder Timmy Tillman finding an early breakthrough, this time from a corner kick that flicked his way off the head of Black & Gold captain Ilie Sánchez. 

“Set pieces are always a really important thing in every single game, to maybe open it up or just to be smart defensively,” Tillman said. “It was just my job to be right there, and I got lucky the ball just hit me. I'm happy to help the team like that.” 

After conceding a 29th-minute equalizer, LAFC resumed its attacking pressure, which led to a contentious penalty call that Denis Bouanga converted, beating former LAFC goalie John McCarthy straight down the middle to make the score 2-1. The goal made Bouanga a perfect 8-for-8 on penalties, across all competitions, since the French-born winger joined LAFC in 2022. The goal, Bouanga’s third of the season, came after several minutes of VAR review and gamesmanship, as Bouanga stood surrounded by Galaxy players before he placed the ball at the spot.

04062024 LAFC LAG Bouanga gamesmanship

“I was not nervous at all, even with the words from John [McCarthy] and all the other people,” said Bouanga, who recalled practicing penalties against McCarthy when they were teammates the last two seasons. “I knew where I was going to shoot, so that's what I did. I was very confident.”

The score remained 2-1 at halftime, marking the third straight half that LAFC had outscored the Galaxy two goals to one. (LAFC defeated the Galaxy in September 2023, 4-2, scoring twice and conceding once in each half.) 

The Black & Gold’s objective in the second half was to maintain control of the game, unlike their outing last weekend in Colorado, when they allowed a 2-1 advantage to become a 3-2 defeat. “At half time, Steve [Cherundolo] didn't really mention it,” Tillman said, “but as soon as we stepped out on the pitch in the little circle we build every time [before second-half kickoff] we spoke about it – that we know the feeling and we know how bad it feels, so we just didn't want it to happen again. And that's why we kept fighting the second half.”

“We knew we could not repeat what happened in Colorado,” said defender Sergi Palencia. “All week we watched film, saw our mistakes, we learned from it and we had that chip on our shoulder to not repeat that, and do better.”

04062024 LAFC v LAG tifo

The partisan crowd at BMO Stadium certainly helped that effort. LAFC’s 3252 supporters’ union unfurled an immense tifo prior to kickoff that was inspired by L.A. graffiti culture and whose theme was unity. LAFC’s players remained united over the last 45 minutes, creating more and higher-quality chances while allowing just one shot on goal to the visitors (and only four the whole game). The Galaxy held the bulk of possession throughout, but LAFC’s aggressive counter-press helped the home side win the expected goals battle, 3.4 to 1.4, while its defense spoiled attack after attack with interceptions and blocked shots.

“We had to suffer a little bit,” said Tillman, “but that's what we spoke about before the game. We knew we had to suffer at special times of the game. Today we just accepted that and kept defending, kept working against the ball and that's what helped us get the win tonight.”

“We consider ourselves warriors,” Palencia added as he sat with center back Jesús Murillo during the postgame press conference. “We like this kind of game ... We feel the crowd very present and we love that, blocking every shot, [making] tackles … This is the best night for a defender.”

LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo called the Galaxy “a good team, and good in possession. They couldn't find a whole lot of clear chances, more shots from distance and set pieces. We felt comfortable defending those moments, and we did.”

These SoCal derbies have usually been physical affairs, and Saturday was no exception, with players going to ground seemingly every few seconds in a match marked by 27 fouls (20 by the home team) and four yellow cards (all shown to LAFC). Palencia and company were “trying to close the spaces,” the Spanish defender said, “[creating] a tough game for them and also making them feel us. Every time they had the ball, they had our arm touching them, making the game difficult. We didn't allow them to feel comfortable.” 

“Fouls sometimes aren't the worst thing,” Cherundolo added. “I would much prefer a foul than letting [Galaxy midfielder and 2023 MLS All Star] Riqui Puig walk the ball through the midfield. I'm not saying we're targeting anybody by any means, but being physical against the Galaxy and teams like them is very important.

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“The only thing we're not happy with is closing the game out,” Cherundolo added. “There's clear chances to go 3-1 up in the second half, and those need to happen, and then the game becomes much easier to finish.”

Saturday’s highly anticipated match pitted two teams that had undergone extensive roster shifts in the offseason, with LAFC starting six players who began the match the last time these two faced one another, in September 2023, and the Galaxy starting just five who were on the pitch at kickoff that night.

The two rosters may have looked different, but the emotion on the pitch, and each team’s reluctance to give the other side an inch, remained unchanged. The two rivals have now scored exactly 47 goals apiece in the series, which began when LAFC entered the league in 2018. LAFC’s record in the derby, across all competitions, now stands at 8W-9L-3D. An LAFC win in the rematch on July 4 at the Rose Bowl would even a series that hasn’t been level in nearly four years. 

But plenty of football will be played before these two meet again in Pasadena, including LAFC’s away match in Portland this weekend (where the club hopes to find its first road win of 2024), and a home match the following Saturday against new Supporters’ Shield leaders, the New York Red Bulls.

Bouanga harkened back to a comment that Lloris made on Friday about how derby victories can propel teams to new heights. “Hugo was really right to say that,” Bouanga said in French. “This victory was really important for the team. We are going to build on this. It will move us forward to the next games.”

LAFC returns to action on Saturday, April 13, with an away match against the Portland Timbers. The game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. PT and can be seen live on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. Radio coverage will be available on 710 AM ESPN LA and 980 AM La Mera Mera (Spanish).

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