An Open Cup El Trafico: Take Two

Join us for a look back and ahead as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup hosts a Round-of-16 El Trafico Derby between LAFC and LA Galaxy for a second-straight year.
By: Jonah Fontela

Love the name or hate it, the El Trafico Derby between MLS founding fathers LA Galaxy and the league’s defending champions LAFC is as hot as crosstown rivalries get in American soccer.

There've been 18 meetings between the two teams from (or near, in the case of the Carson-based Galaxy) the City of Angels since LAFC joined Major League Soccer in 2018. The lion’s share of those games (14) came in regular-season league play with two more in MLS’ postseason playoffs and one in the behind-closed-doors (and pandemic-bubbled) MLS is Back Tournament. 

These neighbors have met just once in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – last year’s Round of 16 – and they’ll do so again this year. The heat got turned up to 11 in that 2022 game, which was played in Carson at Dignity Health Sports Park in front of just-shy of 25,000 fans and finished 3-1 in favor of the Galaxy.

Classic Trafico in the 2022 Open Cup

Both teams’ captains (and Mexican legends) Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez (LA Galaxy) and Carlos Vela (LAFC) started the game. But only the Galaxy skipper, and eventual game-winning scorer, finished it as Vela was removed with an injury after 20 minutes.

The 2022 meeting – between two teams whose deep contempt has been bred by their proximity over the last half decade – had an extra level of spice. Being a straight knockout competition, our tournament ratchets up the tension by definition (sorry MLS regular season, it just does).

LAFC’s Carlos Vela lasted only 20 minutes of last year’s Open Cup Trafico

Walking away winners from last year’s Cup Trafico, LA Galaxy thus bent the lead in overall wins toward Carson. The Galaxy, with seven wins, lead LAFC (six) by the odd triumph. This year’s game, to be played on Tuesday May 23rd at 10:30pm ET and broadcast LIVE on the CBS Sports Golazo Network, will have a winner come hell or high water.

If an historic first-ever penalty shootout is needed to separate the teams, so be it. 

Much of the cast this year will likely be the same as last. Chicharito remains the Galaxy’s club captain. And he’s joined in attack by Dejan Joveljic, who earned his first-team debut in the early rounds of last year’s Open Cup before scoring the third goal of the 3-1 win over LAFC and ascending up the ranks of the league’s most promising young strikers.

Ricky Puig – the mercurial creator brought in from famed Spanish superclub FC Barcelona last year – could get his first taste of Open Cup Trafico action for the Galaxy next week in a game that will be played at LAFC’s downtown BMO Stadium (formerly Banc of California Stadium).

Memo Rodriguez – who scored twice in the Galaxy’s Round-of-32 win over the Sounders and won an Open Cup title in 2018 with Houston Dynamo – is also likely to feature in his first USOC Trafico.

Contrasting Fortunes for LA’s Finest

On the LAFC side, Vela and Kwadwo Opoku will be available for selection in attack. As will USMNT midfield enforcer Kellyn Acosta and last year’s lone USOC Trafico scorer Ryan Hollingshead (also once an Open Cup champion with FC Dallas in 2016).

It’s fair to say tempers soared in the 2022 Round-of-16 Trafico

The fortunes of both teams heading into the game couldn’t be more in contrast. LAFC are cruising in every category. They’ll play in the two-legged CONCACAF Champions League Final against Mexico’s Leon in late May and June. And they’re hammering all comers in league play – with Steve Cherundolo’s men currently sitting in second place in MLS’ Western Conference Standings (just behind last year’s CONCACAF Champions League winners the Seattle Sounders). 

LAFC’s good fortune extends even to unusual routes. With fixture congestion clogging options, Cherundolo sent 8 teenagers (and 39-year-old goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic) down to Seaside, California in the last round of the Open Cup. And that cocktail of old and very young proved outstanding in a thriller of a shootout win (2-2 after extra time) over second-division USL Championship side Monterey Bay FC.

LA Galaxy, on the other hand, are struggling everywhere but the Cup. With fan protests to begin the year, they’re stuck in a two-team tie for last place in MLS’ West. Head coach Greg Vanney, very much on the proverbial hot-seat, selected a powerful squad for the Round of 32 Open Cup game against the Sounders (a 3-1 win). It's reason for some much-needed hope and positive energy at the club.
LA Galaxy came out on top of the 2022 all-LA meeting in the Open Cup

After the Galaxy won last year’s Open Cup Trafico, the celebrations didn’t last. They were beaten – on that same home field and only shortly thereafter – in the Quarterfinal Round by eventual runners-up and Cinderella side Sacramento Republic of the USL Championship.

Tensions Up in the Cup

There were 26 fouls in all, and five yellow cards handed out, in last year’s Cup Trafico. It was a game that produced numerous small-scale brawls and always threatened to boil over into chaos.

The Galaxy, by virtue of their 1996 vintage, have achieved more historically in the Open Cup than their near neighbors. They were crowned winners on two occasions in 2001 and 2005. LAFC have yet to lift U.S. Soccer’s national championship – reaching farthest in their inaugural year of 2018 (Semifinals).

We’ll have to see which of these clubs, with distinctly conflicting current fortunes, will be the victor and move through to the 2023 Open Cup Quarterfinal. But one thing is certain: There will be fireworks aplenty when the 19th installment of El Trafico kicks off in American soccer’s oldest tournament.

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.