VAR controversy didn't dull El Trafico as Chicharito, Galaxy get best of Vela's LAFC

CARSON, Calif. -- The in-demand tickets for Saturday's El Trafico may have read "LA Galaxy vs. LAFC" in bold text, but realistically, most of the capacity crowd at Dignity Health Sports Park were there to watch the main draw: Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez vs. Carlos Vela.

One can imagine an old-timey boxing promotion that pitted the two Mexican superstars against each other for the first time in Major League Soccer. In one corner and wearing white, you had the Galaxy's Hernandez: An impassioned striker whose knack for finishing had previously carried him to Manchester United, Real Madrid and to the top of the all-time goalscorer list for Mexico's national team. Then, in the other corner and wearing black, you had LAFC's Vela: A quiet genius on the wings whose creativity and finesse once made him one of the most feared attackers in elite European club soccer.

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After years of various factors holding up a first matchup between the two in MLS, it became a reality, leading to a brilliant pre-game atmosphere before the sold-out rivalry match. Lost among a gratifying frenzy of barbecues, banda, Mexican flags and pickup games in the parking lot at the Galaxy's stadium, was an endless array of jerseys from the two team captains. With additional Mexican national team kits that also featured the two heavyweights' names, one could be forgiven for thinking that a game for El Tri was being played again.

In an undercard of sorts ahead of the main event, local LA Galaxy supporters and visiting members of LAFC's 3252 both began taking vocal jabs at one another through chants and songs before kickoff. It was a lively and refreshing sight considering a match last season saw fans brawl in the stands. The LAFC fans made their voices heard, but once a tifo with Hernandez sitting with LA Galaxy's trophies was raised, it foreshadowed how the evening would turn out.

By the 13th minute, Chicharito had already found the back of the net off a header, giving the LA Galaxy the early lead. Vela soon responded, but his shot in the 23rd minute unfortunately bounced off the post. In the 28th minute, LAFC's captain appeared to have finally scored off a header of his own, but the opportunity was controversially called offside. Hernandez and Galaxy pushed on in the other direction, doubling the lead in the 31st minute thanks to a goal from Sega Coulibaly.

Vela and LAFC amped up their pressure in the second half, and after the 33-year-old sliced a shot towards LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, a rebounded ball fell to Cristian Arango, who then scored to pull one back in the 79th minute. In dramatic fashion, LAFC's Latif Blessing found an equalizer in stoppage time before VAR ultimately overruled the goal. To the dismay of the visitors, the final whistle was then shortly blown moments later, handing the hosts the 2-1 win as the home crowd erupted in cheers.

"These games are like that, very emotional, they're a lot of passion," Hernandez said after the match. "Thankfully we got the three points, we won the derby.

It was a breathtaking result with incredible support from the stands, and as expected, both Vela and Hernandez were in the middle of it all as the captains and focal points of attack.

"Electric, man. These games are electric. These games are so high intensity. The last 15 minutes I was dead. Dead, man. These games are so high intensity. And, there's always drama. Whether you wanted or not, there's always going to be drama," said Galaxy full-back Raheem Edwards, who has also played for LAFC.

"I think we were very unlucky not to get a point tonight," LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. "I think if two calls go our way, we definitely get a point and maybe we get three."

While MLS and fans across the league finally got to witness the two go toe-to-toe, and as is often the case whenever either Vela or Hernandez shine, Mexican national team supporters were then left wondering why their absences from El Tri remains.

The oddity of the mood and ambience being on par with a Mexico match is that neither Hernandez or Vela would likely be involved if it were so. For Vela, he's already said the door is shut to the national team, essentially placing himself into retirement from the international stage. As for Hernandez, that's more complicated for the player who remains open. Chicharito won the latest edition of MLS's showcase rivalry and has the Galaxy on the right track back to title contention, but there's undeniably a much more confusing path back to his place within Mexico's national team structure.

Details of his El Tri absence since late 2019 remain murky, with many whispers and rumors pointing to issues behind the scenes that have yet to be resolved with the striker and those in FMF and the national team setup. And yet, with Hernandez now having five goals in his first six MLS games, and with the entirety of the Mexican national team scoring just four goals in their last five World Cup qualifiers, it seems like a return for Hernandez would have been an easy fix for the attack.

Perhaps even in the stands at the Estadio Azteca in those tense qualifiers, which ultimately felt flat and dull in the games that were open to the public, there might have been a change in atmosphere if someone like Chicharito or even Vela had somehow been included. There are several factors here at play here for the reasons why the historic Mexico City venue is not as intimidating or lively as it once was, but in a World Cup year that featured an eventual invitation to the tournament for the men's national team, it's bizarre to think that a highly significant qualifier last month against the United States in the Estadio Azteca was not nearly as animated or entertaining as an MLS regular season match 1,800 miles north.

Sadly, that first Vela vs. Chicharito meeting in MLS might prove to be the last. Vela's contract expires in late June at the midway point of the 2022 MLS season and while there are reportedly ongoing talks with the two parties, nothing has been finalized.

It's clear that the two won't share the pitch again with El Tri, but as for MLS, we might not ever get another contest between Mexico's all-time leading goalscorer and arguably Mexico's most talented player.

Until then, the El Trafico bragging rights run through Carson and belong to Chicharito and the LA Galaxy.