Saturday, May 25, 2024

LAFC wants MLS title to go with vibe it has created since launch

Must read

LOS ANGELES — The people. The energy. The city. The winning.

Five years into the project that is the Los Angeles Football Club, one of the city’s most successful residents stood in the cavernous Field Club at Banc of California Stadium last Sunday and lingered long enough to soak in another successful venture he helped create.

“When people believe and they work together,” Peter Guber said in the immediate aftermath of LAFC’s Western Conference-clinching win over Austin FC, “magic can happen.”

Whether or not anyone else celebrating in the premium area on the ground floor of the stadium in South Los Angeles identified with LAFC’s 80-year-old executive chairman, who is among the 29 members of the club’s expansive ownership group, had nothing to do with their nonexistent financial stake. The jubilant scene in this commingling space, which has become arguably the most diverse location in the city on matchdays, is perhaps the purest example of what LAFC wants to represent.

Getting L.A. area residents to care about something is never a guarantee, yet in short order and in a variety of ways LAFC ownership – a mix of private equity heavy hitters, entertainment icons, marketing gurus, tech and social media entrepreneurs, and star athletes and actors – has orchestrated a product that resonates across neighborhoods regardless of a person’s background, schooling, bank statement or other societal dividing lines.

All that matters, all that has mattered since 2018 for those few hours when L.A. fills the Banc, is their stoked passion for a team that is one victory away from winning its first Major League Soccer championship in its fifth season.

Larry Berg, LAFC’s managing owner and a senior partner at the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, understands why Guber, whom he called a mentor, or anyone else could fall for the Black & Gold.

“Sports has a very interesting role in our society in terms of bringing people together,” Berg said. “I think any time all that works – and of course, it always works better when there’s success in the standings – it is magical to see the community come together. The diversity. The full stadium. The vibe.”

High on the long list of stated goals that LAFC set out to accomplish, right there with winning titles and evolving into a brand known by fans around the world, was linking locals to the cultural identity of the club.

“It’s turned into a complete affiliation to a team by a city that has seen the team start from ground zero in a place that maybe wasn’t even safe,” Guber said as he looked out onto the packed Field Club last weekend. “It wasn’t dangerous but it was run down. The whole area has picked up. The people are protective of our building and all the venues. It’s really amazing. It’s a real community effort.”

Carlos Vela, LAFC’s star captain, agreed to join in 2017 after he was convinced by the owners’ collective vision. Well before there was a venue to play in, teammates to play with, or even an office to visit, one of Mexico’s most talented players signed with a team that existed only on paper.

“Every single part of the club is important because when you are building a team you have to project something to the players and the people you want to sign,” Vela said. “If they come and they say, ‘We’re a new team and you can come if you want, let’s see what happens,’ of course you will not sign with them. But that was not the case. Every time I spoke with them it was like, ‘We want to create something special. We want to win. We want people to really commit with the team, the club, the culture.’”

Six years after breaking ground in Exposition Park on the former site of the dilapidated L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, visions of what might be have increasingly become instances of what is.

Among the 29 teams in MLS, including St. Louis, which enters the fray in 2023, LAFC is endowed with the reputation as a big-spending, glamour group featuring high-priced international stars.

Midseason additions Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, along with a significant investment in Frenchman Denis Bouanga, highlighted LAFC’s financial wherewithal during the summer transfer window.

“He was on the more expensive side,” Berg said of Bouanga, who was a favorite of soccer operations chief John Thorrington leading up to the signing.

Thorrington is often asked how he copes with LAFC’s robust ownership group while making player personnel decisions, with the implication being that dealing with nearly 30 owners must be a cumbersome nightmare.

“It’s the furthest thing from it,” said Thorrington, who reports directly to Berg. “It’s a very efficient working relationship.”

As LAFC prepares to meet the Philadelphia Union for the MLS Cup, the two sides’ differing approaches to team building are prominent among the storylines ahead of Saturday’s match.

“They have brought in players that they think could provide great impact, and certainly Carlos is an example of that,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “I’m really impressed with everything that they’ve done. It resonated with sellouts and resonated with breaking through the clutter. It’s a different spending approach than certainly other teams but it works for them and the system provides for it.

“Philadelphia is really a model about how you could bring in the people that understand a system and have a strategy and stick with that strategy and use all of those tools available to you that are not just about Designated Players and drive success. What they’ve been able to do with their academy system I think is a model in our league. Frankly, I think it’s a model in professional sports.”

But chalking up LAFC’s competitiveness on Day 1 to deep pockets, said Berg, a soccer fanatic since the age of 8 while growing up just outside Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, N.J., misses a lot of what they’ve attempted to do.

“If you look at us versus the rest of the league, we’re actually not at the very top so we have not gone out there and broken the bank on players and created new spending tiers that some others have,” Berg said. “And we haven’t spent in total what others have.

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Hey we have the biggest paycheck and we’re going to spend it.’ I don’t think that’s close to true.”

More articles

Latest article