Saturday, May 18, 2024

Alexander: LAFC’s 5-year journey reaches a crescendo

Must read

LAFC spoiled us early on.

The franchise rose from the ashes of Chivas USA, which was launched in 2005, had some brief success as a tenant of the Galaxy in Carson but ultimately imploded in 2014, destroyed from within by the impetuous and misguided ownership of the late Jorge Vergara.

The new club, Major League Soccer’s second attempt at a second team in L.A., was different from the start. It built its own stadium, boasted a diverse and committed ownership group, and spent much of the nearly 2½-year runup to its first match in 2018 seeking out and listening to its prospective supporters, the core of what would become the 3252.

(You know, those people who fill the stands behind the north goal, creating what likely is the best atmosphere in MLS and what certainly is the best and most passionate atmosphere in SoCal sports.)

Before a game was played, this club seemed visionary. Then they went out as an expansion team in 2018 and finished third in the Western Conference, unveiled L.A.’s latest star in former Mexico World Cup star Carlos Vela … and also kept up a recent L.A. tradition by bowing out in the postseason, 3-2, to Real Salt Lake in the knockout round.

But it has been mostly a run of success for the new guys. They won a Supporters’ Shield in their second season with 72 points, a league record until New England rolled up 73 last season. There was a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final in December of 2020, and another Supporters’ Shield this season with 67 points, following a non-playoff season in 2021.

So Saturday afternoon’s MLS Cup final against the Philadelphia Union – LAFC’s first trip to the final and thus the biggest match in franchise history – can be looked at in two ways. With a victory, it would be a culmination of the five-year journey. Either way, it should be a celebration of the journey itself, and the path LAFC took to reach this point.

(Incidentally, I use the term “franchise” advisedly. I made that mistake once with Bob Bradley, the famously intense former coach, and he responded: “I know this is very controversial because there are different ways to look at this, but any time some of the people inside LAFC say ‘franchise,’ I get really angry, because I say, ‘No, no, we have to be a club.’”)

Club or franchise – and I’m guessing current coach Steve Cherundolo isn’t hung up on the terminology – LAFC took a smart path, establishing an identity in the public eye well before actually playing a match, and has stuck to it. There was a steep hill, establishing a club that played just 11 miles from the Galaxy and had to endure the older team’s gibes that it had been around since 1996.

Then again, the older team hasn’t lifted a trophy since winning its fifth MLS Cup in 2014. In the constant one-upmanship between the teams’ supporters groups, LAFC could apply a dagger today on behalf of the 3252.

The stadium in Exposition Park – even as an inconvenience this particular game day because of the transportation and parking issues caused by playing the championship match the same day USC has a football game at the Coliseum – still has turned out to be a master stroke, a centrally located venue within the city limits.

When the ownership group was awarded the expansion team in November of 2014, the idea of a soccer stadium on the site of the soon-to-be-razed Sports Arena had already been discussed.

“One of the advantages that that site had at the time was that it had an existing preliminary entitlement on it from the city of Los Angeles, for a soccer-specific stadium with a capacity of 22,000 people,” co-president and CEO Larry Freedman said.

“Because of that, we were able to avoid what most other cities’ sports teams, including some in our very own league, encounter, which is delay. Delay in getting plans approved, building what you want to build, etcetera. We were able to step into a process that allowed us to design a building that fit within the already approved envelope and get it done in pretty rapid order.”

The process, whether designing and building the stadium, creating a clientele or assembling a roster, was patient and specific. The stadium plans were announced in May 2015. John Thorrington was introduced as the vice president of soccer operations that December, and is still the guy in charge. Early in 2016 the club revealed its crest and launched its youth academy, and that August ground was broken for what is now Banc of California Stadium. A little more than 18 months later, the place was open for business.

“It has turned out to be better than we ever expected it would be,” Freedman said. “The record shows that we were right. Putting COVID (specifically the shortened 2020 season of empty stadiums and the crowd-limited start of 2021) aside, we sold out every game we played. We’ve got a crazy, great fan base. And we’ve also been fortunate enough to put on a number of other events of all shapes and sizes at our venue.”

MLS got it wrong the first time it tried to add a second team into a region that could be considered the Noah’s Ark of sports, with two of just about everything. With a do-over, the league got it spectacularly right.

Then again, you never know for sure until everything’s in place.

“When I come here, there was nothing around the stadium, even an office,” Vela said this week, recalling his arrival as the team’s first Designated Player in August of 2017, a little less than seven months before the first match. “When I came, I arrived in L.A. and I was like, ‘Maybe there’s nobody coming to pick me up?’

“So it was something weird, but after I met the people, the owners, all the members of the club, I was like, ‘OK, this can be special. We will work to make this special.’”

He has, and so has his organization. As a result, Saturday will no doubt be a celebration; the 3252 and friends will make it so. The team’s job is to make it a culmination, too.

More articles

Latest article