By Mark Moreno
LOS ANGELES CA- The smell of smoke fills the air as chants from the voices of thousands of standing soccer fans in the stands fill the air.
This is not Europe, nor is it South America. It’s Los Angeles, and this scene is not playing out in just one stadium, but two.
On April 13, the Los Angeles Football Club and their cross-town rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy, played two separate crowds of soccer-loving Angelinos sporting the colors of the team they have chosen to align their identities with.
The Los Angeles Football Club and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s recently ongoing battle for the affection of Los Angeles is slowly turning the city into a football mecca no different from Madrid and the cultural presence of her own two teams.
“Soccer really feels like it’s part of the city now,” said soccer fan Rene Gonzalez. “Walking down the street, people see me wearing my jersey and they wither give me a hard time or they give me a hug.”
Today, Rene Gonzalez is clad in his aforementioned black and gold LAFC jersey and surrounded by thousands of fellow supporters at the ritual tailgate outside of LAFC’s stadium for the match against the Montreal Impact on Friday, May 24.
But it did not get this way overnight. Soccer has never really struck a nerve in the United States, but Los Angeles was always different. The ethnic enclaves of the Korean, Middle-Eastern, European, South American, and of course, the Mexicans, have brought with them a love for the sport that has resonated throughout the city.
But that love never translated to a local team, despite the brief hints of promise with teams like the Los Angeles Aztecs, who captured the heart of the city for a moment in the 1970s before the league that they competed in collapsed, taking the team with it.
Even then, the soccer Los Angeles loved was the soccer from the many fatherlands of her immigrant children who refused to cut ties with their national identities abroad. After all, why root for a team here when the one back in the old country gives enough of a football fix?
“My dad has always been a fan of soccer from Europe and Mexico, and I have too, but LAFC is here in the city I live [in] and not thousands of miles away like Club America and Liverpool,” Gonzalez stated.
Gonzalez has been an LAFC fan since day one. But in the fickle climate of soccer in the U.S., day one for LAFC fans means only just a year ago, as the team only played their first match in club history on March 4 of last year.
But Gonzalez and his fellow fans are also keenly aware of the other guys in town: the 5-time MLS Cup champions and former home of the world-famous David Beckham, the LA Galaxy.
“The Galaxy has been around since the true day one [in] 1996,” Minerva Castellon, a Santa Clarita resident, said. “That’s a year before I was even born. The Galaxy has history and LAFC just plain doesn’t.”
When asked why he chose LAFC over the LA Galaxy, Gonzalez said, “To be honest I never really paid them much attention before becoming an LAFC fan, but ever since that first game against them a year ago, I hate their guts.”
Dubbed ‘El Trafico,’ a clever play on words for ‘El Clasico,’ combining terms referencing a classic rivalry match in the soccer world and the traffic synonymous with the greater Los Angeles area, the meeting between LAFC and LA Galaxy is the hottest sports ticket in Los Angeles.
The cheapest tickets for the next El Trafico, at LA Galaxy’s home stadium, on July 19 are currently going for up to $102 on Ticketmaster. In comparison, the cheapest tickets for the Galaxy’s home match before El Trafico, against their long-time bay area rivals the San Jose Earthquakes, are currently going for only $22 on Ticketmaster.
But why is that? Why is a rivalry that is barely only a year old such a large event? Besides the star players of Carlos Vela, representing LAFC, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, representing LA Galaxy, the first El Trafico was a dramatic seven-goal thriller.
It was a match that dreams are made of, complete with 2 virtuoso goals by Vela, a late comeback win, and an unprecedented 45 yard goal by Ibrahimovic that currently has 6 million views on YouTube.
But it’s those stars that bring the meat of the rivalry. Ibrahimovic is one of global football’s biggest stars and one of its largest personalities. his skill exhibited for world-famous teams like FC Barcelona and Manchester United has earned him the nickname of ‘the lion’. He has lived up to that name by being one of the most theatrical players to ever lace up his boots.
Luckily, Ibrahimovic has not left a single ounce of that personality in Europe. Since arriving to the MLS, he’s scored a karate kick style goal on Toronto FC and has screamed in the face of an opposing team’s defender after scoring a game-winning goal. Zlatan’s presence in LA has certainly been felt.
Carlos Vela on the other hand, is a quiet football prodigy that never truly found his true potential during his time in Europe. Despite his short stint with Arsenal 14 years ago, Vela has always been capable of being Mexico’s greatest footballing legend if he ever had enough of the will to do so.
Until now. As of this season, Vela is currently comfortably leading the entire league in both goals, at 15, and assists, at 9, in just 15 matches of the current season so far. For Jackie Moreno, a member of the Black Army 1850, who are just one of LAFC’s many rowdy supporters groups, Vela represents a lot more than just goals.
“He’s like Fernando Valenzuela, but for soccer,” said Moreno.
Vela’s ability to connect with the Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American community in Los Angeles has resonated into the very roots of the team’s supporters and fans.
“My parents are from Mexico and I speak Spanish,” Moreno said. “I have very close ties to my Mexican heritage and a lot of people here do too. Not just Mexicans but the Koreans too. That’s why I think the atmosphere here is the best, because everyone is bringing in their culture from other soccer loving countries and we are all adopting it.”
But there are still hurdles that must be cleared before that can be the case. The LA Galaxy have been struggling with attendance, even with Zlatan’s star power, and a lot of it can be attributed to their poor form and inconvenient stadium location in Carson, CA.
LAFC is currently comfortably in first place but how will fans react if the team begins to underperform?
Both ownerships have so far proven to be the most ambitious in the MLS which has only meant, and will continue to mean, great things for both fans. And with El Trafico 4 just on the horizon, don’t be surprised if you’re asked ‘Galaxy or LAFC?’ anytime soon.