After going from LAFC to Galaxy, John McCarthy braces for El Trafico

John McCarthy isn’t sure what kind of greeting to expect Saturday when he steps on the field at BMO Stadium for the first time with a Galaxy crest on his chest.

McCarthy was the MVP in LAFC’s only MLS Cup win in 2022, then helped lead the team back to the championship game last season, posting career bests for starts (25) and shutouts (eight). But the fact that it doesn’t guarantee him a warm welcome isn’t because LAFC fans in the noisy north grandstand have short memories. It’s because their loyalties run deep.

And in the most passionate rivalry in MLS, that could make it difficult even for someone such as McCarthy, who gave LAFC its only ring, to get anything other than grief after jumping across town to the team’s hated neighborhood rival.

“If they boo me, they boo me. If they don’t, they don’t,” McCarthy said. “LAFC was great to me and I’ll always be great to them.”

Except maybe on Saturday. The Galaxy are unbeaten through their first six games for the first time since 2010 while LAFC is off to the worst start in franchise history, winning only one of its first four, getting shut out in three of them. As a result, this El Tráfico will still be the first since 2021 in which the Galaxy (3-0-3) — who lead the Western Conference and share the best record in MLS — will enter with the better regular-season record than LAFC (2-3-1).

That’s momentum McCarthy and his new teammates would like to build on in their biggest test since the opening game with Lionel Messi and Inter Miami.

“These games have a heightened emotion or have something that makes the stakes feel higher,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said. “It gets the attention of the players, of the fans. These games are really important for us. If you ever want to do something great in this game, in this league, the more of these types of games you can have, the better prepared you’re going to be when those moments come up.”

Another factor that could complicate McCarthy’s return to Exposition Park is the fact that the Galaxy have LAFC to thank for their new goalkeeper. Early last season, the team hired Will Kuntz as its senior vice president of player personnel, just months after he left a similar position with LAFC, where he was instrumental in building the team’s championship roster.

One of the players he helped sign there was McCarthy, a journeyman keeper who had played for seven teams in as many years but had never started more than 12 games in an MLS season. He appeared in only one regular-season match in his first year at LAFC yet never complained, working instead to make Max Crepeau, the man playing in front of him, better.

When Crepeau broke his leg on a freak play in extra time of the MLS Cup final, however, McCarthy came off the bench to make two saves in the tiebreaking penalty-kick shootout, winning MVP honors — and the starting job while Crepeau’s leg healed.

But with LAFC facing a salary crunch and McCarthy due a raise from the $121,667 he earned last season, the team declined to pick up his contract option. That surprised Kuntz, who pounced, signing the goalkeeper three weeks later.

“He’s an all-time locker room guy,” Kuntz said.

McCarthy was a fan favorite at LAFC, as much for his plain-spoken, hard-nosed personality as for his play in goal. But what Kuntz valued most was his leadership, a strength on which Vanney plans rely.

“He’s a guy that can be a stabilizer,” said Vanney, whose team conceded a league-high 67 goals last season. “The thing that I didn’t know about John, what someone like him will bring to the equation, is how he’s going to fit in? What’s his personality? And that’s been one of the biggest adds.

“He’s a team guy. A competitor. He’s never going to make it about himself.”

Vanney also sees McCarthy, 31, as a mentor for backup keeper Novak Micovic, a 22-year-old Serb whom the Galaxy are trying to groom to become their eventual first-choice keeper. But being a mentor has its downside because eventually the student replaces the teacher.

“Novak will get some games,” Vanney said. “We really believe in Novak’s upside and his potential.

“Right now [John’s] the guy. But he also knows that he’s partly here to help bring along Novak because he’s much younger.”

If McCarthy, who posted his first Galaxy shutout in last week’s 1-0 win over Seattle, plays against LAFC, he’ll become just the second player, after Raheem Edwards, to take part in the rivalry game on both sides. But while Edwards took delight in stirring things up before each El Tráfico, McCarthy is playing it straight.

“I’m not going to badmouth anyone,” he said. “There’s no reason to. I had a great time at LAFC.”

Maybe, but now he’s on the other side in a derby game that, in seven short years, has built an intensity unmatched in U.S. club soccer. Yet McCarthy, who is with his fourth MLS club, said he didn’t hesitate to leave LAFC for its bitter rival, even if it meant changing lanes in El Tráfico.

“I’ll go wherever I’m needed,” he said. “I’m not someone that’s picking and choosing where I’m going. It’s not like I’ve got 100 options. So I’m grateful for the opportunity LAFC gave me. I’m grateful for the opportunity the Galaxy is giving me.”

“I hope LAFC remembers who I genuinely am,” he continued. “I’m a good dude and I gave everything I have for them. But now I have to give everything I have for the L.A. Galaxy.”

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