The Galaxy have won a record five M.L.S. Cups, including three in four years from 2011 to 2014, when they were led by high-profile, and highly paid, signings like David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. That star-centered system has been the Galaxy’s calling card and winning business model, and after missing the postseason in 2017, the team has doubled down on it, signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a swaggering Swedish striker with the crowd-pleasing habits of scoring stunning goals and talking about himself in the third person.
To Major League Soccer’s delight, Ibrahimovic’s debut — in Los Angeles against L.A.F.C. last month — ended with his scoring two goals in a 4-3 thriller, delivering some welcome buzz for the league in a rivalry that had been preemptively called El Tráfico.
Yet if the Galaxy’s model is the exemplar of M.L.S. 2.0 — imported headliners, a suburban soccer-specific stadium and success — then L.A.F.C. is already showing what its next generation of fan engagement, stadiums and media relationships might look like.
Because beneath the gleam and glimmer of L.A.F.C.’s new home — the pristine field, the silver roof that shades row after row of jet-black seats and the theatrical nature of seemingly everything the club does online — is something more fundamental: a well-run team and a well-executed plan.
L.A.F.C., after all, was born from the ashes of Chivas USA, an earlier Los Angeles M.L.S. club with a manufactured Mexican identity that folded in 2014 after years of lackluster play, dwindling attendance and lost opportunity.
“Chivas was effectively a failed expansion in L.A.,” said Larry Berg, L.A.F.C.’s lead managing owner. More than anything else, Berg said, that experiment provided a blueprint for what not to do.
Instead, from the awarding of the expansion team in 2014 until its on-field league debut in March, L.A.F.C. undertook an expansive branding effort to try to position itself as belonging to the city of Los Angeles specifically, and to Angelenos generally. Street by street, block by block, one by one is a mantra repeated endlessly by those around the team and on its social media accounts, and the methodical approach has proved even more successful than the founders had hoped.
Before the team ever kicked a ball, L.A.F.C. had sold 17,500 season tickets, and club officials project that Banc of California Stadium — in the heart of south Los Angeles, adjacent to the famed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home to Southern California football and two Summer Olympics — will be sold out for every match this season.
The implicit, and sometimes explicit, message is that the Galaxy aren’t of Los Angeles, and play in the faraway land of Carson. L.A.F.C fans even have a hashtag (#carsongalaxy) they use on social media to mock the Galaxy, much as N.Y.C.F.C. and its fans needle the Red Bulls for claiming to represent New York while playing their home games in New Jersey.
So far, the team’s play on the field has been both exciting and, at times, infuriating. Opening the season on the road as finishing touches were put on its new home, L.A.F.C. has won four of its first six games, scoring goals by the bucketful but conceding almost as many, as the humbling 4-3 loss to the Galaxy and a 5-0 thrashing in Atlanta a week later illustrated.
Still, eschewing the outdated stereotype of M.L.S. as a retirement league for well-known Europeans, Coach Bob Bradley and General Manager John Thorrington have built a fan-friendly and surprisingly formidable (at least up front) team. Carlos Vela, a 29-year-old Mexican forward, arrived with extensive experience in the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, and Diego Rossi, a 20-year-old from Uruguay, quickly opened eyes inside the league and out.
Fans who want to watch them but can’t get into the stadium will not find English-language L.A.F.C. matches on a free over-the-air channel or a regional sports network, but somewhere more novel: YouTube’s streaming cable replacement, YouTube TV. The decision to seek out the unusual arrangement, which also includes a jersey sponsorship, was a purposeful effort to explore a nontraditional solution.
“I think in a world where the M.L.S. local rights aren’t quite where they are in other leagues, it allows you to experiment a little bit more,” Berg said.
But while Major League Soccer hopes L.A.F.C. and the Galaxy grow into formidable rivals, their biggest competition remains international: the cross-border appeal of Mexico’s top soccer league, Liga MX, in the heavily Latino Los Angeles market. That was the original conceit behind the failed Chivas USA experiment — to create a team with a Mexican identity to attract Mexican fans — but the target audience dismissed it, and Galaxy fans already had a team.
Banc of California Stadium is the latest attempt to draw those fans in for another look, to try to win them over with a Mexican striker, an attack that has produced a few memorable goals and some stardust in the owners’ box. The timing of the team’s debut hasn’t hurt, either: The Galaxy finished last in the league standings last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
At a ribbon cutting for the stadium last week, the team’s sky-high expectations were on display when Johnson got his turn at the microphone.
“Just like we were able to turn the Lakers around into a championship team,” he said, “we’re going to do the same thing with this great soccer team, L.A.F.C. We will be champions one day.”