MLS expansion club Los Angeles Football Club broke ground on their new Banc of California stadium taking another step forward as the franchise prepares for its inaugural season in 2018. Members of LAFC’s ownership group, including comedic actor Will Ferrell, Lakers legend Magic Johnson, and famed motivational speaker Tony Robbins were among those who took part in this morning’s ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, site of the team’s eventual 22,000-seat soccer-specific stadium and surrounding entertainment center. As numerous soccer and area leaders sat in attendance, including U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, former USMNT star, Paul Caligiuri, and former LA mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, the team’s new local co-managing owner Bennett Rosenthal unveiled new renderings of the site and informed the crowd the club had entered a 15-year partnership with the relatively small financial group also known for being the bank of USC Athletics. Rosenthal explained that the organization hoped to create thousands of locally-sourced jobs and support economic progress in the South Los Angeles community.
Although Los Angeles gets a new start with a new stadium, the Sports Arena is a historic site for the city – hosting numerous concerts and sporting events. The arena was the home for college basketball for the UCLA Bruins from 1959 to 1965 and the USC Trojans from 1959 to 2006. Bruce Springsteen affectionately called it “The Dump That Jumps” at the venue’s final show. Co-owner Will Ferrell noted that the Sports Arena had also been the site for the filming of his seminal figure skating comedy, Blades of Glory, stating “I was in that ‘beautiful husk’ of a building for a month, but I’m willing to sacrifice that for the growth of the city of Los Angeles and the sport of soccer in LA.”
Though it was a sweltering 82 degrees at 10a.m., the mood was jovial throughout the event. Co-owner Magic Johnson, after hearing Larry Berg, managing owner of LAFC, speak, joked to the crowd that, when he met him, he “almost killed him, because his name is Larry Berg,” alluding to the longstanding rivalry between Johnson and Celtic forward, Larry Bird. All attendees at the event were given LAFC shirts, which Rosenthal insisted everyone wear. The black shirts, hats and soccer scarves in the heat certainly added to the fevered excitement that was palpable throughout the crowd. Ferrell kidded, “I was worried that I was gonna be cold today, but they gave me my scarf. It took the chill off.” Club president Tom Penn insisted the team’s stadium experience center on Pico [Boulevard] would be “killer – a spectacular way to experience what the venue is going to be all about.” As the sun beat down, Penn quipped, “we tried to do that here [on the stadium site], but the tent was so hot.”
The festive event kicked off with a parade of shouting LAFC fans; members of various LAFC supporters groups, including District 9 Ultras, Black Army 1850, Expo Originals, LAFC Relentless, The Lucky Boys, The LAFC Cuervos and The Heavenly Host were cheering, waving banners and beating on drums the whole time as they collectively walked from the California Science Center to the side of the stage, singing “We’ve got the bessssssst faaaaaans…in LA!” to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. As each speaker came to the podium, the supporters provided custom, coordinated cheers. The group’s enthusiastic presence made a lasting impact on the owners and crowd – the event could be considered as a “warm-up” for games to come – showing what can happen when even hundreds of fans band together for united support of their team, much less the thousands that make up the LAFC supporter community.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber spoke with WUFC about the importance of supporters groups’ presence in MLS. He noted that, though all teams have core supporters comprised of members from various backgrounds, they all share the same enthusiasm for soccer: “When I travel around, they feel the same level of commitment and passion – they just might have a different logo on, or might have a different way of going about what they do.”
LAFC head of supporter relations, Patrick Aviles, was exuberant about the event’s success and the supporters’ large turnout – especially commendable at a mid-morning event on a Tuesday. “All these people show out every time for us, organized en masse, excited, positive, and we don’t have a team yet. We don’t have players, we don’t have a coach – we’re just putting shovels in the ground. So, it’s awesome to have them all be part of this history, literally building this club together.”
Supporter group members were equally as enthusiastic.
District 9 Ultras supporter Guillermo Alfaro, 33, joined the “supporter supergroup” in 2010, when fellow Salvadorean, Osael Romero – the 2009 Gold Cup hero, joined Chivas USA. The group’s presence carried on after the MLS team disbanded in 2014, and Alfaro stayed with them, noting “this group is like a family – everybody is nice with everybody. Everybody is welcome to come with us.”
Joe Aguilar, 36, a member of the Black Army 1850 for over 3 years, echoed Alfaro’s sentiment, emphasizing the fact that his group embraced diversity. “We like to bring in people of all walks of life because that’s what the city of LA represents – it’s a melting pot.”
“It’s all just peace and soccer,” Black Army member, Jimmy Lopez, 32, agreed. He explained that his group sells merchandise to fund supporter events and their charity work – including a partnership with AIM (Athletes in the Making), which sponsors young inner-city athletes who might not normally be able to afford to play.
But how can people from so many different groups manage to work together so well?
“Organization is key,” Lopez explained. “Everybody gets along, and if there are differences, we can just talk it out.” Lopez clarified that the different groups will be standing together at the as-of-yet-unnamed North Section of the Banc of California Stadium to cheer on LAFC. “We’re all different groups, but we’re going to fly under one flag. The [Portland] Timbers Army has lots of different side groups – alone, each group may have 20, 30 people, but when they come together, they’re 5,000 strong. Whatever the name’s going to be, we fly under that.”
Whether that unified support and love for soccer will also extend to fans of MLS soon-to-be-rivals, LA Galaxy, remains to be seen. However, early signs show that a citywide alliance between the two teams’ fans seems unlikely. District 9 Ultras supporters proudly hefted a banner that read “LAFC – Anti-Galaxy”, as they sang out “There’s only one team in LA” to the tune of “Guantanamera”.
Garber himself understands that fan presence is vital to MLS and to the game itself, and was happy to see such a show of team support at LAFC’s groundbreaking. “Supporters bring authenticity – a real passion,” he declared. “You can have a big event like this with a bunch of suits and celebrities, but I didn’t know [the supporters] were coming, and it made the event.”
As shovels and backhoes start to tear up the ground at the Banc of California Stadium site over the next months, the club has a lot of work to do to ensure their personnel will be in place by the kickoff of the 2018 season. But, with the owners and supporters already united in common goals, LAFC’s foundation already looks to be unbreakable.