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LAFC’s issue against the Galaxy? It’s all mental

Two perspectives on why LAFC keep biffing this game.

MLS: US Open Cup-Los Angeles Football Club at LA Galaxy Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As much as we want to just move on, we have to talk to about it. With the LAFC loss last night the team not only found themselves out of the hunt for some much-needed hardware, but continued a troubling tradition of not getting it done on the road, against their biggest rivals. We talk about making your home a fortress in sports all the time, but the LA Galaxy have seemingly created a fortress of the mind when it comes to the black-and-gold.

After the match, LAFC Head Coach Steve Cherundolo said, “I’m not too upset about it at this stage in the season.” While completely understandable — LAFC currently sit atop the Western Conference, are playing well in the grand scheme of the season, and look to be contenders for the MLS Cup — it is the quiet part that should never be said out loud. You should be upset. Losing to the Galaxy has become almost standard at this point, especially in Carson. In 15 matches against their rivals, LAFC have only three wins. In the eight matches as the visitors, the black-and-gold have yet to see a single victory. Their best results, two 1-1 draws.

Last night’s loss eliminated them from U.S. Open Cup competition, meaning winning the MLS Cup is the only new competition this team could win this season. Silverware that this squad desperately need. Perhaps most perplexing is how talented LAFC have been in their short five year history, yet taking the pitch against their crosstown older sibling, seems to send shivers down their spines. It’s almost like the infamous Zlatan game in their first-ever meeting continues to haunt them. Former LAFC midfielder Raheem Edwards, alluded to LAFC players knowing how hard it would be to face the Galaxy at their place. That’s upsetting.

The worry is, it seems the biggest issue for the black-and-gold in these matches is mentality. Regardless of how well they’re doing, how many goals they've put past other teams in the league, when El Tráfico hits they seem to downshift a gear or two. The only two exceptions being the 5-3 playoff win at home in 2019, and the 6-0 win in Orlando during the fever dream that was MLS is Back. The other 13 matches? Average at best.

In the grand scheme of 2022, sure, this loss isn't the worst thing in the world. The team can now focus on the season fully, keep players healthy, and push on for the trophy that matters most. However, this loss can't just be swept under the rug. The team's inability to win in Carson has gone from quirky stat to troubling trend real fast. If the team really want to call themselves kings of LA, they'll need to figure a way out of their own mind fortress to dethrone Galaxy themselves.

- Trebor Tracy

At this point, this is how you should picture LAFC playing at the Galaxy: Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, and Charlie Brown getting fooled again when she pulls it away.

LAFC are Charlie Brown and the Galaxy are Lucy, of course. When it comes to the losses, which have happened six times at Dignity Health Sports Park, one of two things happens: They make a deadly mistake, or they look scared of the moment.

Trebor’s right, Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming off the bench and hitting probably the best-ever MLS goal has scarred LAFC. They can figure out a way to brush off every single other opponent, even the big bad teams of Liga MX, but they can’t get past a team that has missed the playoffs nearly every year of LAFC’s existence? They hit the ball on the ground with finesse in nearly every other game, find ways to come back when they need to, show that swagger on the field week in and week out, but in the rivalry games they shrink from the pressure, miss passes they normally make it their sleep, make the Galaxy look like Liverpool?

The most damning data point is this is entirely predictable. Nearly every time these teams meet, LAFC is playing well and the Galaxy are struggling. Then the Galaxy okey-doke LAFC and make it look easy. Most of the time, LAFC pick right back up where they left off, too. It is incredible.

The thing is, I’m not sure how they can fix it in the short term. They’ve changed coaches. They’ve mostly changed the roster too, and that hasn’t flipped the script. I’ve seen them vacillate from hyping up the game ahead of time, to dismissing it as just another match, and no approach works. It doesn’t look like they have a sports psychologist on staff, but hopefully they already have a relationship with one. If not, that seems like a worthy investment at this point.

In the end, it’s just a game, I get that. LAFC have had a good team and have a good one this year. They can and should beat the Galaxy at least half the time based on talent alone, and don’t need major upgrades to push them over the top in this rivalry. At the same time, margins in MLS are fine and no team will run away with everything all the time, no matter how much we may wish that of our team.

But while I think as outsiders we can sometimes lean on mentality a little too much — athletes nearly always have superhuman levels of competitiveness the rest of us can’t even fathom, for starters — it’s safe to say LAFC’s problem in Carson is consistently a mental one, and nothing else.

- Alicia Rodriguez

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