Riqui Puig of LA Galaxy celebrates after scoring the winning goal in an MLS game against LAFC at the Rose Bowl on July 4. (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)
PASADENA, Calif. — Elite athletes always rise to the occasion. The thought of competition fuels that inner beast to blossom. And when it’s your rival in front of you, the hunger is insurmountable for some.
The rivalry between LA Galaxy and LAFC didn’t waste a second finding those figures. Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his mark from the very start. His pretension forced Carlos Vela to always be at his best, and he responded to most of the blows by becoming the leading scorer in El Trafico history with 12 goals. In between there have been names and moments to ramp things up.
But rivalries are naturally always looking for a spark, and now Riqui Puig has stepped up to the plate.
The 23-year-old Galaxy midfielder and former FC Barcelona product has chosen to use El Trafico as a talent show. He’s one of the best players in Major League Soccer playing on a struggling team, so his skill shines even brighter.
“He just plays the game at another speed,” said head coach Greg Vanney. “His capacity to receive the ball on the move, change speeds, shift through spaces that don’t look like people can fit through, he gets through them.”
There is no better example than when he glided through defenders and scored an unreal goal against LAFC the last time the two clubs played. The caveat is that it was a U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 game where LAFC played a roster of academy teenagers to rest their main squad for the CONCACAF Champions League final that was approaching.
Puig took his jersey off and celebrated in a Lionel Messi-esque way by showing the No. 6 to the crowd. That didn’t sit well with many on the LAFC side, given the squad of “kids” it was against, and veteran Giorgio Chiellini made sure everyone knew how he felt about it as he loudly yelled “payaso,” calling Puig a clown while he was conducting a postgame interview.
Just what the rivalry needed to add even more anticipation for the July 4 extravaganza at the Rose Bowl.
And in front of an MLS-record 82,110 fans, of course Puig delivered. This time it wasn’t against just kids. He was one of the youngest starters on the field, but also the best player on it by miles.
It was a Spanish masterclass as he orchestrated the 2-1 victory for the Galaxy, finishing with a goal and assist.
“I’m a player that likes to play these big games with a lot of pressure and a lot of fans in the stands,” Puig explained after the win. “We showed what we are capable of and I love that pressure, love these games and the derby. I’m very happy and happy for the team. We really needed these three points.”
I asked him specifically if he thought about repeating that controversial celebration against LAFC after scoring.
“I was dying to,” he said, flashing a huge smile. “Truth is, if I got a yellow card I wouldn’t be able to play the next game, and I can’t miss games because the team needs me and I need the team. In that moment I thought about it for a second and decided not to take my shirt off.”
Fuel to the fire.
PASADENA, CA – JULY 4: Riqui Puig #6 of Los Angeles Galaxy scores a goal as John McCarthy #77 of Los Angeles FC tries to make a save during the match between Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles FC at the Rose Bowl on July 4, 2023 in Pasadena, California. Los Angeles Galaxy won the match 2-1 (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)
The Galaxy are now 9-6-5 against LAFC in El Trafico. For moments, this victory restored a familiar feeling. It almost made you forget positioning in the standings, or the fact they lost star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to a season-ending torn ACL. It made the fan protests and boycotts at the beginning of the year seem so distant. This would’ve never happened if the game, which was originally scheduled for February, didn’t get postponed due to weather. And of course, if the Galaxy hadn’t fired president Chris Klein.
But the dominoes fell almost too perfectly and fans were treated to many fireworks on a historic day.
That was undoubtedly a Galaxy home game. It was reflected in the stands and ultimately on the field — setting off a bunch of good memories.
When the Galaxy used to play their home games at the Rose Bowl back in 1996, life and MLS were significantly different. It was the first year for the league trying to make the sport relevant in a country that often overlooks domestic futbol, especially at that time. With that came a rush of uncertainty on what to expect as far as support.
On April 13, 1996, the Galaxy played their very first match against the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and packed 69,255 fans into the venue for the largest non-World Cup or non-Olympic crowd in L.A. at the time.
Almost 30 years later, the energy has only grown stronger. Since 2003, the Galaxy have played their home games about 30 miles away from Pasadena in Carson, California. But the Rose Bowl will always be home. That’s why it was fitting that this version of El Trafico broke a record and ended in a Galaxy win. Poetic that Vanney and some of his coaching staff, who played on those original Galaxy teams, were in charge to lead the moment.
“I don’t know if I can share with my players enough how myself, Dan [Calichman] and [Kevin] Hartman, the guys who were doing it here for a while a while ago, how much [Tuesday night’s win] meant to us as well just to come back here and get a result in a place that we used to call home,” Vanney said.
“To think about how far this league has come and how much it’s gone through over the course of that time. LAFC didn’t even exist in that time, and now to have this kind of rivalry with this kind of attention is really extraordinary,” he added.
It was surreal to many involved with and rooting for the Galaxy. In the larger picture it’s just three points and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done for them to dig themselves out of the 13th-place hole they’re sitting in.
Yet, as much as sports are about results, they’re also about moments. Creating those iconic memories is what drives the fun around being a fan.
It’s why the Rose Bowl means so much to the Galaxy. It’s why this rivalry in a short time already means so much for MLS. It’s why Puig knew exactly how he had to show out on this massive stage.
It’s why Los Angeles’ original team will remind you they’ve been around since 1996, and they aren’t going anywhere.