The most anticipated match of the Major League Soccer season takes place Friday night at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Golden Boot leader Carlos Vela of LAFC and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimović will be the two stars under the brightest spotlight, especially considering the comments made by the towering Swede in the buildup to the contest.
"[Carlos Vela] is playing in MLS and he's in his prime. When I was 29 where was I?"
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 18, 2019
A year ago, Ibrahimović announced his presence in MLS and in the rivalry by scoring a pair of goals in his Galaxy debut in the first installment of the derby.
The other two matchups in 2018 ended in draws, leaving LAFC in search of its first win over the crosstown rival that is one of the cornerstone franchises of MLS.
Overall, LAFC has the better team with one of the best midfield units in the league, headlined by Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta.
While the focus will rightfully be on Vela and Ibrahimović, the game itself could be won in the middle of the park by Kaye, Atuesta and Latif Blessing, who have been relentless in that section of the pitch all season.
LAFC is the true definition of a team, with Adama Diomande and Diego Rossi joining Vela in prime scoring form up top, the midfield controlling games and the defense giving up 17 goals over 20 regular-season contests.
Even though they will be playing at home, the Galaxy have to be seen as the underdog Friday night because of their up-and-down form. They have alternated wins and losses since the start of June.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side boasts its own variety of star power with young phenom Efraín Álvarez looking to make his mark on the rivalry, and Gold Cup champions Jonathan dos Santos and Uriel Antuna expected to make some type of impact.
Goalkeeper David Bingham should be in for another test after making 14 saves in the Cali Clasico against the San Jose Earthquakes in Week 19.
Some of the unsung heroes mentioned above could have their say in the final result as perfect complementary parts to the attacking stars.
In between the two heated contests are plenty of mouthwatering games that could shake up the standings in each conference.
Week 20 weekend schedule
Friday, July 19
Los Angeles FC at LA Galaxy (10 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Saturday, July 20
Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew (7:30 p.m. ET, TVA Sport, ESPN+)
Chicago Fire at Philadelphia Union (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
Houston Dynamo at Toronto FC (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
FC Dallas at Sporting Kansas City (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
New York City FC at Colorado Rapids (9 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
Minnesota United at Real Salt Lake (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
San Jose Earthquakes at Vancouver Whitecaps (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
Sunday, July 21
D.C. United at Atlanta United (4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
New England Revolution at FC Cincinnati (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
New York Red Bulls at Orlando City (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Things to watch
The Eastern Conference playoff race
This is the most important weekend in the Eastern Conference playoff race to date.
Wednesday’s results were a welcome sight to the playoff contenders, who have all experienced their share of struggles in the past month, which has led to Philadelphia remaining on top despite earning one victory in its past five contests.
The Union have an opportunity to get back on track and re-assert themselves on top of the East with a home victory over a struggling Chicago side that is going through yet another disappointing season under manager Veljko Paunović.
Wins by the Impact and the Reds would keep them in fifth and sixth at worst, and the results would put extra pressure on Atlanta and DC going into their head-to-head showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday afternoon.
New York City FC has been the one team everyone in the East has kept an eye on because of its games in hand, but Domenec Torrent’s side is trending in the wrong direction ahead of a tricky road trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to play the resurgent Colorado Rapids.
Of course, a few unexpected results could alter the shape of the playoff race further, but this is the first weekend where one can legitimately say it’s crunch time in the East, and it’s only going to get tougher from this point on.
Can red-hot Minnesota end Real Salt Lake’s home run?
Even though the Loons have played some of the best soccer in the league over the past month, it is still understandable to be a little skeptical of the team based off their struggles in previous seasons, and at the start of this season.
Something has clearly clicked within the Minnesota squad, and it has been able to get the best out of some of its younger players, including Mason Toye and Hassani Dotson.
The Loons will put their four-game winning streak on the line against a RSL side that is 7-0-2 in its home building.
Mike Petke’s team has pulled off victories over Atlanta United, Toronto FC and Philadelphia on home soil, and in addition to RSL’s run of form, Rio Tinto Stadium is one of the toughest places to play in the league because of the altitude.
Keep an eye on how the Minnesota defense handles the movement of Jefferson Savarino and Albert Rusnák in and around the box.
In the win over the Union last weekend, Savarino killed the Philadelphia defense with his movement on the ball and ability to fire from outside the box.
If Ike Opara and co. can limit the production of the Venezuelan, it could make life tough on a side missing leading scorer Sam Johnson.
Is Sporting Kansas City back for real?
While they were impressive from the standpoint that Sporting KC showed the ability to bounce back from a rough patch of results, the Fire and Whitecaps are still two of the worst teams in MLS.
Saturday presents Peter Vermes’ team with a chance to extend its winning streak against a playoff contender in FC Dallas.
Luchi Gonzalez’s side has to start playing with a small sense of desperation as well since it is down to seventh place in the Western Conference, with Sporting KC, Houston and Portland nipping at its heels.
Gerso Fernandes has been the catalyst of Sporting KC’s recent attacking success, and he will once again have to be at his best to put the young FC Dallas midfield under duress.
On the other end of the field, Ilie Sanchez will be tasked with silencing the production of Paxton Pomykal, who has been one of the young breakout stars of the season.
If Ilie is able to lock down the area in front of the box by limiting Pomykal’s time on the ball, FC Dallas’ attack could be stuck in neutral.
Can Portland rebound in Cascadia Cup?
The Portland Timbers have been viewed as one of the most dangerous teams in the second half of the campaign because of their plethora of home games at Providence Park and the games in hand they hold on the rest of the Western Conference contenders.
But the Timbers have hit a road block in the last two matches, with Colorado and Orlando both coming into Oregon and earning draws.
Giovanni Savarese’s team can’t afford to drop too many results because it is still on the outside looking in at the playoff places with games in hand drying up.
Sunday’s trip north to CenturyLink field to take on the Seattle Sounders will be a good test to see if the Timbers can rebound from a pair of disappointing results.
Seattle has improved of late, and it passed a big test in Week 18 against Atlanta United, but now it has to contain a versatile attack for the second week in a row.
How Brian Fernández, Diego Valeri and the rest of the attack respond to adversity up top could be a sign of things to come for Portland.
If the Timbers fall flat on Sunday, it could begin to warrant some concern about a downswing with tough games against the Galaxy and Minnesota in the coming weeks.