Oh when L.A.”—the song starts slowly, almost mournfully—”goes marching in…,” before the drums come crackling in and the song kicks up into a romp.
It’s a Saturday morning, and 80 or so people—mostly Latino men—have gathered in Lot 6 of Exposition Park to support the city’s newest Major League Soccer team, the Los Angeles Football Club. Its home, the Banc of California Stadium, is under construction nearby. Almost everyone has a black-and-gold hat, scarf, or jacket featuring the team’s Art Deco logo as they sing tunes ranging from basic chants—“L.A. Football Club! La-la-la-la-la-la-la…”—to rewritten pop standards, as is the practice among football crowds in England (there is a surprising amount of singing in European football).
Leading the chorus is Josue Villanueva (or Chiquilín, as he’s known), a rather large, bearded 22-year-old with a beaming smile. An L.A. native, he’s a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Like many Americans, he was introduced to professional soccer by watching the World Cup on TV. Like many Angelenos, he was rooting for El Tri—Mexico, where his parents are from. And like others here, he was never comfortable rooting for the L.A.Galaxy, in part because they play in far-flung Carson, and in part because of the staid atmosphere at the matches there.
For Villanueva and others, LAFC is the chance to not just root for a team but also to help start one. “We call ourselves supporters,” he says. “But I feel like I’m part of the team.” In soccer, there are fans and there are supporters. Fans go to a game once in a while. Supporters, who often form clubs, or groups, go to every match and sing throughout, giving their team an edge—which in turn attracts more supporters and fans.
LAFC head coach Bob Bradley knows this full well. “To have a stadium that’s filled with fans who love our football and feel a connection with our team and know how important they are,” he says in his husky New Jersey accent, “when that happens, around the world, that’s what makes our game so special.”
And LAFC has bent over backward to please the various supporter groups, which include the Cuervos, the District 9 Ultras, and the Black Army 1850. “They’ve been involved in every aspect of our foundational build,” says LAFC president Tom Penn. “They’ve put in the time, appeared at our public hearings, participated in sessions with our architects, designing what they wanted in their stadium and their section and their bar.” It was supporters, in fact, who asked for the standing-only section at the stadium’s 3,252-capacity north end. The team even flew ten or so of them to Dortmund, Germany, home of Borussia Dortmund FC and their stadium, Westfalenstadion, to learn from the best: the Yellow Wall, a standing-only section that regularly packs in 25,000 delirious German fans. “Everyone in the stadium knows the songs,” says 20-year-old Fernando Varela, who was in the traveling LAFC group. “They live the team. Yeah, there are some American teams that are rowdy, but nothing compares.”
The throngs of the Yellow Wall alone wouldn’t fit into the entirety of the 22,000-seat Banc of California Stadium. The LAFC’s stadium even seats fewer people than the Galaxy’s 29,000, but it’s more centrally located. Built beside Memorial Coliseum, it is in the heart of L.A., freeway adjacent and accessible by rail line. “Los Angeles has a decent group of sports teams that do well,” says writer Alex Dwyer, who covers LAFC for MLSSoccer.com and Howler. “What we don’t have is a stadium with a really fervent atmosphere—an atmosphere that goes above and beyond the idea of fanhood. LAFC has an opportunity to create one of the more unique sporting experiences in L.A., one that could draw people who aren’t necessarily MLS fans or even soccer fans.”
Of course, the times being what they are, the stadium includes 33 luxury boxes and five bars, or “clubs,” each more exclusive than the last. But while Varela admits that he and the rest of the supporters would rather there weren’t so much social stratification on the new grounds, he’s not letting commerce get in the way when the team plays its first home match April 29. “We’re going to do our best to get the whole stadium rocking,” he says a few days before the parking-lot rally, “regardless if it’s the $3,000 seats or the $20 seats.”
Judging from the infectious energy in Lot 6, you shouldn’t put it past them. When LAFC central defender Laurent Ciman drops by, he seems impressed. So does Steven Boll, a native of Dortmund who moved here three years ago. “This is incredible,” he says. Could L.A. ever be like Dortmund? “Maybe not in the numbers. Dortmund [F.C.] is over 100 years old. But…” he trails off, smiling, as the dwindling crowd breaks into another chant, jumping up and down and pumping fists.
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