Chapter #2 – Los Angeles Galaxy

The second stop on our journey takes us to the City of Angels, or… close enough, Carson, California – home of the LA Galaxy. Only 8 teams can proudly say they are the ‘Founding Fathers’ of American pro-soccer, the beginning of Major League Soccer, and Galaxy is one of them.

History

MLS history goes side by side with LA Galaxy. They were there from day one, trying to understand the shape and form of what professional soccer in the US should be. As the name suggests, the Galaxy represents LA as the home of the ‘stars’ in Hollywood.  They managed to produce good results in the early years, but it was only in 2002 that they won their first MLS cup after defeating New England Revolution. The team won it for the second time in 2005.

It was in 2007 when the club truly became what it aimed to be – a home for the stars. Recruiting David Beckham from Real Madrid turned this franchise and the MLS into something else. It was no longer an American team trying to understand the game, they were part of the ‘game’. When Galaxy went to play outside the US, it attracted tens of thousands of people. The team had (literally) rebranded itself and started a new era.

It took some time for the Galaxy to get what they wanted, but when it happened – it happened big time. Winning 3 MLS trophies in 2011, 2012, and 2014, made them the most dominant club in the league. But, it wasn’t only about the trophies. In those years and the years to follow, the club had local American stars playing for them, like Landon Donovan, and was able to attract big (yet older and past their prime) stars from Europe – Steven Gerard, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Giovani Dos Santos, and others. Other European players who may not have been big stars across the continent, but still well known, decided to embark on the journey to go and play overseas for the Galaxy.

Local supporters gained more interest in the club as the stars settled in LA and enjoyed what the city had to offer. This was a big deal for LA Galaxy, and even more for the MLS. If Beckham could do it, so could Henry, Rooney, Kaka, Nani, Pirlo, and others. Yes, they may not have been in their prime, but imagine the league without them. Those are the names that brought fans to the MLS for the very first time.

In recent years Galaxy have been struggling, finishing at the bottom of the Conference, let alone missing the playoffs. This isn’t what Galaxy wanted. Unfortunately, the salary cap system doesn’t guarantee that stars will bring in titles season over season.

David Beckham’s Statue © Elad Spira

Biggest Rivalry

The game against San Jose Earthquakes is known as the California Classic and represents the clash between NorCal an SoCal, northern and southern California. But the game you truly want to see is against LAFC. Los Angeles Football Club joined the league in 2018, and the Derby between the teams, aka El Tráfico, is what everyone is talking about and waiting for.

The first ever game between the clubs was held in Carson. LAFC already had a 3-0 lead, but star Ibrahimović used his debut to turn the scoreboard around, finishing the game 4-3 for the Galaxy in the last minute and scoring the most beautiful goal of the season. If that’s how it started, we can expect many more in the future and plenty of stories to be written about this rivalry.

The Galaxy supporters don’t particularly like LAFC, and many refer to them as Chivas 2.0 (after Chivas America, a LA club that ceased to exist). The supporters believe that they are the originals and rightfully represent the city, the stars, the Californian summer vibe, you name it. LAFC come from downtown LA and try to claim something a little different of this city. They wear all black with golden stripes, so maybe what we’re seeing is a battle between the light and dark sides in the city.

The City

There is so much to say about LA. Even that while the club is ‘officially’ part of the city of Carson, it still belongs to the LA metropolis. In terms of size, LA can be easily compared to a small-to-medium European country. That means the city has variety of things to offer – from Hollywood, to the beautiful beaches, to the variety of neighborhoods or cities.

Each area has its own personality, some are considered very wealthy, some poor, some are considered to be cool and hipster, or encompasses the somewhere else in the world like China Town, Thai Town, Teherangeles and many others. The diversity in this city makes it what it is. A city that you will probably won’t be able to visit by foot, but still feels like a small replica of plant earth that is accessible to explore and enjoy.

Game: Galaxy vs. New York City FC

This is not a game Galaxy will want to remember. It was their 12th game of the season, second place in the Western Conference after a 2-loss streak on the road, hosting NYC FC from the previous chapter.

NYC FC is a strong team and this was one of those games Galaxy should’ve won if they want to be the number one team in the MLS. Especially since their bitter rivals LAFC are standing in first place in the Western Conference and only furthering the divide between the two teams. Within 3 minutes at the end of the first half, Héber (44′ minute) and Maxi Morález (45+ minute, stoppage time penalty kick) helped NYC FC win the game.

Galaxy had their chances in the second half, and can feel unlucky to not have been able to end in a draw. Not only that, their star and captain Ibrahimović grabbed NYC FC goalkeeper and was later suspended by the league for two matches.

View from my seat at section 229 © Elad Spira

The Stadium

  • Name: Dignity Health Sports Park
  • Address: 18400 Avalon Boulevard, Carson, CA
  • Maximum capacity: 27,000

Formerly known as Home Depot Center, or the Stub Hub Center, the Dignity Health Sports Park has been the home of the LA Galaxy since 2003. This is a soccer stadium, the right size and dimensions, with a great view from everywhere. We were sitting in section 229 enjoying the shade the stadium offers (except for GA, most seats are shaded).

There were about the same amount of people in the crowd as in the NYC FC game in NYC. But 22K people in a smaller stadium feels a lot better. Far fewer empty seats and you’re sitting closer to the field.

The stadium itself screams LA Galaxy. Wherever you go you see the players’ photos, the Galaxy logo, and fans stores. This is their home. Though they temporarily share it with the LA Chargers, and the stadium hosts other events, it’s clear as sunshine that anyone who’s not LA Galaxy is merely a guest.

If you don’t have a car, getting to the stadium is a pain. You can use any of the ride share apps, but if you come from the other side of the city you may not be inclined to do so. With a car you’ll need to say goodbye to $20 for stadium parking, unless you want to use any of the free shuttle services the club offers from parking lots that, maybe by LA standards, are nearby.

Though traffic going in and out of the stadium wasn’t really bad (but also wasn’t good), it makes you wonder if the club would have been able to attract more people had it been closer to the city center and reachable with other means of transportation. I was imagining how bad it can get with weekday games, getting through the infamous LA traffic to get to Carson by 7PM. That’s a mission impossible for many.

Dignity Health Sport Park © Elad Spira

Atmosphere

The first time I went to see the Galaxy play (somewhere around 2015) I thought to myself this is the most family friendly sport event I ever attended in my life. Coming from Europe, I was not used to hearing the entire stadium shouting ‘You’re welcome’ after being thanked by the announcer for saluting a goal-scoring player.

It doesn’t end there. People are always friendly. You see many families, toddlers, and kids. Of course it helped that the game was at 1PM on a Saturday, and I’m sure the nice LA weather doesn’t hurt, but it’s so refreshing to see that going to a soccer game is a family thing. Maybe some families say let’s skip Lego Land or SeaWorld this weekend, and instead do a Galaxy game. I love it.

Let’s break this apart – it wasn’t a crucial game. It wasn’t a Derby. The team has been doing pretty badly in the last three years, so likely people don’t go to games with the expectation that they have to win or the world will collapse on them. They did lose, but for a sunny game in the late afternoon everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

Walking into the stadium you pass by multiple areas designated for tailgating. You can do it with family and friends on the grass in the parking lot, or join one of the supporter groups. Before the game people were hanging out, listening to music, and truly having fun. It feels very organized, as if it’s been going on for years now. When you walk in and pass through the David Beckham statue, you sense that the club is more than the 11 players on the field.

The club also has a mascot, Cozmo, who resembles one of those creatures you expect to see in GALAXIES far, far away. During half time you see kids from the different ‘Galaxy’ youth teams across South California playing on the field. And the national anthem was followed by fireworks and singing.

The club has different supporter groups. There’s ‘The Angel Brigade’ who sits behind the goal in section 121. Next to them are the ‘Galaxians’, in section 122 – the first and original supporter group of the club. ‘LA Riot Squad’ sits in the other side of the stadium in section 137. It was nice to see how the different groups were chanting in cooperation with one another to amplify their voices across the stadium.

One thing to say about Los Angelenos is that they fail to arrive to places on time. People were pouring in throughout first half. Traffic in this city is bad, and people are probably used to being late to places, but it takes the sting out of the beginning of the game.

LA Brigade © Elad Spira

Club’s Presence in the City

The city is huge, and the club definitely represents the city. But, is the opposite true too?When you think of LA, does LA Galaxy comes to mind? Probably not.

The city, or the metropolis, has at least two teams in every major professional sports. With so many possibilities the competition is tough. Seems like the club is able to preserve a fan base, but it’s far from dominating the city. You’re more likely to sense LA Galaxy around the stadium, in Carson, and this is where you’ll see more billboards and experience the traffic on game days. When my family and I are in LA, we usually spend most of the time in Westwood, and I don’t recall seeing anything related to the team.

However, the club’s presence wears a different form. This is the city of stars. This is the place for the Beckhams and the Zlatans to appear in talk shows, commercials, and even movies. The club is more interested in showing up on Jimmy Kimmel than it is appearing on the streets.

Pre-Game © Elad Spira

What Does the Future Hold?

The club has been around for 23 years now and, as I said in the very beginning, it goes hand in hand with the MLS. If before it seemed like the League is growing thanks to the Galaxy, now the club is struggling on the field, and it might be the League that comes to Galaxy’s rescue.

As the league becomes more and more popular around the country, and with the inauguration of LAFC, the buzz is growing. Even when the club is under-performing, it’s still an important player in the MLS. And, as the most valuable franchise at $300 million in 2017, it will always stay one as long as it remains competitive, especially if they keep the strategy of bringing in stars.

The stronger and more competitive the MLS will become, the more LA Galaxy will benefit. For the MLS to become stronger it needs to loosen its restrictions and caps. Becoming more like ‘European Football’ than ‘American Soccer’. This could change the game for LA Galaxy, who will be able to attract more players, maybe even in their prime.

The popular console game FIFA recognizes the promise of MLS and follows the story of a young European star who lands at LA Galaxy. Today’s soccer is not just about what the players do in their club. It’s also about how they manage their brand and, not surprisingly, you see the big stars heading to cities like Madrid, London, Milano, Paris, and others, where they also pursue other financial and personal leads.

LA stands out here. Even if it doesn’t become the best soccer club in the world, the franchise has a strong brand. In many ways I see their equivalent as the LA Lakers, who even in bad seasons are popular, retain loyal fans, and attract media coverage. For soccer to be successful here, it has to be about more than results. In England people say it’s like religion, and the Galaxy are in a good place to define their own sports culture.

Stadium Portrait © Elad Spira