Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela were expected to battle for the spotlight from the start.
And so they did. Vela, the leading scorer in Major League Soccer this season, and Ibrahimovic, one of the world’s most outspoken soccer stars who called himself “a Ferrari among Fiats” this week, each scored for their respective clubs inside the first eight minutes of El Tráfico — the derby between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles FC.
Ibrahimovic, though, was the real showstopper by the end of the match. He recorded his second career hat trick to hand the Galaxy a 3-2 victory — just over 24 hours after telling ESPN that he was “by far” better than Vela.
At first, Vela seemed to be on the verge of making Ibrahimovic eat those words.
Vela put LAFC (14-3-4, 46 points) ahead from the penalty spot in just the fourth minute and became the fastest person in MLS history to reach 20 goals in a single season. Referee Jair Marrufo called the penalty after David Bingham clipped Vela, who entered the box almost completely unmarked following a Galaxy giveaway.
Four minutes later, Ibrahimovic stole back the spotlight and kept it most of the night.
“When you play a rival like that in a full stadium – the atmosphere is nice – I get pumped up, I get adrenaline for these games,” Ibrahimovic said on the ESPN television broadcast immediately following the match. “This is considered the biggest game in the league, so the biggest star needs to show up in the biggest game.”
First came the equalizer.
It was produced in part by Julian Araujo, who sent a looping ball out of midfield and toward the LAFC penalty area, where Ibrahimovic emerged to meet it.
Ibrahimovic chested the service down, settled the ball on his right foot and took a touch to split two defenders. Then he lashed out at the ball, sending it curling into the back of the net past Tyler Miller.
The Galaxy (12-8-1, 37 points) were the better team in the first half and picked up right where they left off after halftime.
Ibrahimovic’s second goal came in the 56th minute, when he headed in a Diego Polenta cross from the left flank following a Latif Blessing giveaway. He completed the hat trick less than 15 minutes later by ripping a drive to the inside of the lower right corner of the net – his 16th goal of the season.
Vela added a consolation strike in second-half stoppage time, firing low and to the far corner past Bingham, though video review had to confirm the goal was not offside.
LAFC remains in first place in the Supporters Shield race and in the Western Conference, but had its three-game MLS winning streak snapped and is still winless in El Tráfico (0-2-2). The Galaxy are now in second place in the West, but still nine points behind LAFC with the same number of games played.
“In the U.S., the regular season is not important, according to everyone, only playoffs. ‘When the playoffs come, I have to get myself in playoff mode,'” Ibrahimovic said of what he hears from players around the league. “The difference with me is I’m in playoff mode every day.”