LOS ANGELES -- Although the wordless billboards went up quietly this week on the streets around Los Angeles FC's Banc of California Stadium, their message to the city is loud and clear.
Some of the huge signs show imperious LA Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic running into LAFC's Latif Blessing, sending the smaller man flying. In others, Zlatan is making a saucy gesture toward LAFC's Carlos Vela, or perhaps celebrating in his fellow superstar's face.
Each of the photos captured a triumphant moment for Zlatan and the Galaxy during the first four editions of El Tráfico, the increasingly outstanding rivalry series between Major League Soccer's two Los Angeles clubs. LAFC's fans have the best team in the league this season, but it has never beaten the Galaxy — and those fans will have to walk past these trolling provocations around their home ground before the latest edition of the LA derby Sunday night.
"I thought it was funny," Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said after he saw the billboards on social media. "That stuff gets us going. It's just good for the city, man. Even though they're probably a little bitter about it."
A rivalry that didn't exist 18 months ago has grown into one of the highest-profile matchups in the league, drawing rowdy crowds and attracting international attention for the intensity and quality of the first four games.
The Galaxy are the only five-time champions in MLS history, while their crosstown foes are a model expansion franchise with a lavish new stadium near downtown LA. Multicultural Los Angeles has loved and embraced soccer for decades, but having two successful professional franchises has amplified that passion, turning each of these rivalry games into something special.
"Ever since the first game, this rivalry has grown so organically," Lletget said. "You'll see on Sunday, the intensity is as if you're in a derby in Europe. It's pretty crazy."
Although the Galaxy (13-11-2) are in third place in the Western Conference, they're a whopping 20 points behind LAFC (19-3-4), which is running away with MLS' best record during a spectacular second season.
But LAFC is 0-2-2 against its biggest rivals, making this final regular-season meeting even more urgent for the newcomers in black and gold.
"It's the derby," LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. "It means more. So far, with all the things we've done, we haven't beat them."
Thrilling finishes, spectacular goals and bad-tempered play have been in abundance ever since this rivalry began with Zlatan's electrifying two-goal MLS debut during the Galaxy's comeback victory in March 2018.
Ibrahimovic and Vela have scored a whopping six goals apiece in the four El Tráfico games, doing everything that's expected from arguably the league's two best players. Their last meeting was dominated by the superstars, with Ibrahimovic's hat trick besting Vela's brace in a 3-2 victory for the Galaxy on July 19.
"When you play against the other team of the city, you always want to do your best," said Vela, who already has 26 goals and 15 assists in a historically prolific season. "You want to win. You want to show you are better than the other team of the city, and it's a good chance to show how good we are this season. I hope we can finally get the three points."
The rivalry is new, but the fan bases' animus is older.
Galaxy supporters look down at LAFC for its brief history and an empty trophy case, but also because LAFC's fan base includes many hard-core supporters who switched allegiances from Chivas USA, which dissolved in 2014 after a dismal decade sharing the Galaxy's stadium.
But LAFC fans love to point out the Galaxy technically aren't from Los Angeles, and never have been. They've been based in Carson, a suburb due south of downtown LA, since 2003 after spending their first nine years of existence at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
"The intensity comes by itself, because it's two teams from the same city," Ibrahimovic said. "Rivals. I think it comes automatic, the intensity of this game."
Banc of California Stadium will be intense from the moment LAFC's 3252 supporters union starts rocking the North End a couple of hours before kickoff. Ticket prices on the secondary market for Sunday's game skyrocketed in recent days, with few single seats under $200 and the high-end tickets topping $1,500.
Along with a national television broadcast, fans at home can watch a streaming comedic commentary program synced to the match by Funny or Die, the comedy website co-founded by LAFC minority owner Will Ferrell.
What's more, both sides of this derby are getting serious reinforcements before this edition.
Sunday's game will be the first El Tráfico for Cristian Pavón, the speedy Argentine forward who arrived earlier this month and immediately took a major role in the Galaxy's attack. It could also mark the LAFC debut of Brian Rodríguez, the promising Uruguayan designated player whose paperwork cleared just in time to make him available to Bradley this weekend.
"Games with the Galaxy take on an extra dimension," Bradley said. "We know that. We've had really good moments against them, but we haven't won yet, and so that's something that doesn't need discussing inside our team. Everybody knows."
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