Welcome to the LA Soccer War: A Tale of Celebrities, Money and the Black Army

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeMarch 28, 2018


Since 1996, "tradition" in Los Angeles soccer has been defined by the LA Galaxy. The team has won five Major League Soccer Cups and served as a landing spot for world-class footballers—notably high-priced, big-name European superstars in the twilight of their careers, like David Beckham. Last week, the team made headlines for signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the massively talented, hyper-confident former Manchester United star from Sweden. This is what the Galaxy do: They buy the best to win. The team is the MLS equivalent of the "evil empire," more Yankees and Lakers than Mets and Clippers—all champagne and expensive silverware.

But there is a less heralded soccer tradition, one that, for the last four years, has drifted in the background of the cacophonous Los Angeles sports landscape: a blue-collar fan culture that aligns with the underdog. These fans—many of whom have been the orphaned sons and daughters of the dearly departed Chivas USA—have grown accustomed to losing but have found other reasons to love their team.

This season, the two traditions of L.A. soccer will converge, now that the underdogs finally have a team to call their own: Los Angeles Football Club. LAFC has flown into the City of Angels on the wings of a multimillion dollar marketing campaign and a state-of-the-art, $350 million stadium. Its ownership—fronted by luminaries like Warriors part-owner Peter Guber, Magic Johnson and Will Ferrell—has made forging a lasting connection to the city's young, diverse working class the cornerstone of its outreach efforts. But the question remains: Can LAFC's inclusiveness, whether just a marketing gimmick or not, win over the Galaxy's town, or will the city reject what could be the makings of a football renaissance?

On a dreary morning before Los Angeles Football Club's first regular-season MLS game, fans—parents pushing strollers, expectant wee-hours drinkers and assorted revelers—queued up in front of the Barney's Beanery in Terminal 2 at LAX International Airport. The area around the restaurant had been cordoned off; only LAFC supporters were allowed inside. Signage sprinkled around the terminal had steered them here. But so did the prospect of experiencing soccer euphoria. In less than 31 hours, the 150 or so fans would travel to Seattle for LAFC's first match against the Sounders.

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Among the faithful were Jerry Jimenez and his wife, Nidia. They arrived decked out in the team's black and gold road jerseys and were brimming with the kind of excitement that belies the early hour of the day. "Here, we feel like we're at home," Jerry said. They brought their two-year-old son up from San Diego, where they live.

Jerry has been a Los Angeles soccer fan for years—just not of LAFC. First, he was a Galaxy fan; but soon he switched to Chivas USA, an offshoot of his favorite team, Chivas Guadalajara, a Liga MX team that plays in Mexico. "Something in my gut didn't feel right," Jerry recalled. "It was like, 'ugh.' I see that crest and it means something to me because I grew up seeing that crest and I thought, 'I'm on the wrong side.'" Upon switching to Chivas, he joined Black Army 1850, a grassroots local fan group that took its inspiration from the Ultras of Europe and South America.

But then, in 2014, Chivas USA folded, leaving Jerry—and the Black Army—without a team. When, three days later, MLS announced that a new ownership group led by a group of high-profile investors would bring a new franchise to Los Angeles, Jerry co-signed the effort. "We figured, 'Hey, this is a clean slate,'" he said. "'Let's keep pushing what we've always been pushing: to have a club in the City of Angels that represents us.' [The Black Army] crest"—two interlocking white hammers over a black background—"represents the two hammers of the working class. That's what we've always wanted from the beginning, something related to the city: Chivas Los Angeles instead of Chivas USA."

LAFC's inaugural game against the Sounders saw 150 fans of the new team make the trip to Seattle.
LAFC's inaugural game against the Sounders saw 150 fans of the new team make the trip to Seattle.Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Football Club

Los Angeles is sprawling and suburban and has a large Latino population. According to the 2010 United States Census, 48.5 percent of the city is made up of people of Hispanic descent. Soccer is more than entertainment to many of them. It is a heritage and a way of life. With Chivas USA, MLS made a concerted effort to court this massive potential fanbase. The Galaxy and LAFC both hope to capture the imagination of city's dominant culture.

The city's two teams have taken different approaches to market their respective franchises. StubHub Center's location in the L.A. suburb of Carson makes it more appealing to fans on the outskirts of the city. The Galaxy's marketing plan and atmosphere—from cuddly mascot Cozmo to its bright, cheerful team color scheme—is made for families in the way that a minor league baseball game might be sold to casual audiences. It has also made its case visually: Los Angeles is littered with billboards promoting the Galaxy's legacy, some declaring in both English and Spanish that the team has been "lifting trophies since '96."

LAFC has aligned itself more with fan groups like the Black Army and has focused on building ground support through community service and charity. Nomar Garciaparra, the former Red Sox and Dodgers superstar who now serves as a part-owner of LAFC, said that from the beginning, the ownership expressed a desire to become a part of the firmament of the city. "The funny thing is, I am one of them," he says of LAFC's supporters. "I grew up in L.A. I grew up in the small little city [Whittier] outside of that. Going from there to now being on the ownership side, I looked at them and say, 'Hey, I'm one of you, and here we are together.'"

Tom Penn, the president and co-owner of LAFC, told me that the team's ownership group made capitalizing on organic support one of the early tenants of its marketing campaign. "At the time [of the club's founding], we weren't going to play for three years. So, everybody said, 'What did you have to offer them?'" he said. "What we had to offer them was, you guys are with us from the beginning. Your fingerprints are on every decision, and you can tell your kids and your grandkids, 'You built this club with us.'"

That grassroots campaign seems to have worked. LAFC has sold out all of its 17,500 season tickets—"memberships," as it calls them—for their inaugural season. By contrast, according to the Los Angeles Times, Galaxy season ticket sales are down nearly 20 percent from last year for a total of 9,500.

Chris Klein, the president of the LA Galaxy who played in L.A. during the Beckham era, had his own theory about the numbers. "With anything new, there's intrigue and people wondering what it's going to be," he said. Klein seemed excited about where MLS is going. "The way that you're going to build your club—which I believe is one of the more exciting things about how our league is evolving—is our clubs have their own identity. What works in Atlanta or Minnesota is different than L.A. or New York. I don't think you're going to see one model that everyone sticks by."

Thanks to the playmaking and scoring of forward Diego Rossi (left), LAFC is off to a 2-0 start in its inaugural MLS season.
Thanks to the playmaking and scoring of forward Diego Rossi (left), LAFC is off to a 2-0 start in its inaugural MLS season.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press

He added that he didn't think L.A. having two teams is bad for business: "Having Chivas fail or any club in our league fail is not good for anyone."

The quality of play in MLS has been a sore spot for many fans in this country and, while it has improved since 1996, it still lags behind top leagues like the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. That doesn't mean games are boring to watch in person: There are the beer-soaked celebrations, the pre- and postgame meetups, the tradition—popularized by Sounders FC—of the supporters' song-filled march to the stadium and the general sense of shared purpose.

But television ratings are another story: MLS has struggled to get the energy of its live experience to translate to tiny screens inside people's homes. The 2017 MLS Cup final drew only 803,000 American viewers when it aired on ESPN in December. That's down from 1.4 million who watched on the Fox broadcast network the year before.

Locally, the LA Galaxy have benefited from a 10-year, $55 million deal with Spectrum SportsNet to broadcast its games in the city. But the team only drew an average of 9,000 viewers a game on the SportsNet cable channel, according to the Los Angeles Times—not quite the rapid growth you might expect from a league that touts its fanbase as the future of American sports consumers.

LAFC, for its part, has looked to younger, city-dwelling Angelinos to build a following. The tactic is similar to that employed by teams in MLS markets such as Seattle, Portland and Atlanta. In those cities, stadiums are centrally located and easily accessible by public transportation or walking. LAFC has gone new-age with its broadcast rights strategy, too; in late January 2018, it inked a deal with YouTube to be the exclusive local carrier of LAFC matches. (The video-sharing service is the team's first jersey sponsor.) Whether the broad reach of the internet can help LAFC avoid the ratings challenges of MLS is anybody's guess. Then again, if MLS is truly the American sports league of the future, there might be another lane for it to thrive. Maybe the future of football doesn't exist on television anyway.

Banc of California Stadium is a towering, open-air structure that sits on the southeast side of Exposition Park, off Figueroa. It features fancy restaurants, bicycle parking and a nearly 7,000-square-foot sunset deck so fans can takes full advantage of the relentlessly sunny L.A. weather. (There's a pool, too.) The downtown skyline looms in the background. The field is reminiscent of the grand football grounds of Europe. With a capacity of 22,000 fans, it's far smaller than the average first division soccer stadium. But there's a safe standing rail seating section—the first in North America—so fans can remain on their feet for the full 90 minutes, if they so choose.

The stadium is the realization of a decades-long trend in the city's history of urban planning policy. It replaced the aging Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena downtown—one of the few remaining connections to the classic mid-century architecture that the L.A. area was known for. It also crystallized the rapid change of the Exposition Park neighborhood, and the nearby USC campus, which have undergone a tremendous 21st century revitalization in recent years: the stadium, a renovation of the Coliseum, and a new $1.5 billion museum endowed by filmmaker George Lucas. (There could be even more new construction soon thanks to the upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics.)

For LAFC's ownership group, Banc of California connects the team to the neighborhood's past. "I think the location, where we're located, is integral—by the iconic Coliseum," Garciaparra said. "We have the history of the L.A. Sports Arena, knocking that down and building the new, modern stadium as well." Ownership hopes that the stadium will go a long way in attracting LAFC's legion of followers—many of whom live in the heavily populated Hispanic neighborhoods of South L.A.—when it opens on April 29. In the meantime, the team will have to find other ways to entertain fans on the road.

When they arrived in Seattle on a damp evening under a gray-colored sky, LAFC supporters made their way to the Owl N' Thistle Pub not far from CenturyLink Field. The Black Army took over a back room and turned all the TVs to a Chivas Guadalajara/Club America Liga MX match. The melody of traditional Chivas songs echoed throughout the bar, sung in Spanish with the inelegant, throaty voices of the sufficiently inebriated.

One English fan, an actor and comedian who goes by the name "Gary Gold," caught my attention. He had feathered blond hair and wore a track jacket with a necklace—the kind one might associate with a flashy English footballer. Gold has become something of an unofficial mascot for the new club in recent years, largely because of his online persona—a fabulously successful Beckham-esque designated player from England that LAFC simply refuses to sign.

I asked Gold why he chose to hitch his nascent comedy career to LAFC rather than the Galaxy. He requested that he be allowed to conduct our interview in character. "It seems like LA Galaxy are pretty happy being a bit of a retirement home," he answered.

The next day, LAFC fans gathered at Pyramid Ale House before the Seattle match and were surprised by a visit from the team's owners. The crammed bar was filled with the kind of exuberance that makes for quite a commercial for the product—sons and daughters and mothers and fathers sharing stories, clinking glasses and praying for a win. The owners, eager to capture a bit of that magic for themselves, pulled up to the bar on a lavish bus, and the comedian Ferrell jumped out to mix it up with the supporters and revel in a "Will Ferrell" chant.

It's not every day that an owner—or a mega-celebrity—mixes it up with fans. But LAFC's supporters are used to it. Julian Sperling, who hails from La Habra Heights, California, and is a member of the Black Army, has met with members of the front office before. They pitched him on the club and, he admitted, their message appealed to him. "They were talking about [how] a team based in Los Angeles can encompass and exemplify the community itself," Sperling said.

Magic Johnson is among a number of celebrities involved with bringing LAFC to life and helping usher in the building of the team's new stadium.
Magic Johnson is among a number of celebrities involved with bringing LAFC to life and helping usher in the building of the team's new stadium.Nick Ut/Associated Press

The club, and a handful of other LAFC fan groups, have been involved in much of the decision-making related to the expansion team's culture—from the team colors to the amenities in the stadium. Jerry and Nidia were both present at the first meeting between the team's front office and Gensler, the architecture firm that designed Banc of California Stadium.

Nidia was pregnant with Diego at the time, and the first people they broke the news of his impending birth to were their fellow fans in that Gensler meeting. "For us, it was a very special moment, because it felt like this is all coming together for us," Jerry said. "And now, we're building a legacy with our child that's coming into this. Now, he's almost two. He's been through this whole process with us."

As a way to commemorate their son's ties to the club and stadium, they signed a bit of concrete in a special section of the stadium during the initial build last year and added his handprint. "It's no longer just the team," Jerry said, tearing up. "Now, it's more about what Diego is going to get out of this. We're building something within our family that's going to be a tradition."

He continued: "It's the connection with people. … It's the connection with the club and the people that are a part of the club. We all feel a part of it here. That's where there's the differentiating factor between the Galaxy and here. If you look around, there's a lot of people here. I think they get that feeling as well, where we feel a part of this club more so than we ever have and a part of the city as well." 

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