In Los Angeles, the Galaxy and Los Angeles FC are battling to define what it means to be an Angeleno—and to create the sort of rivalry that sells football to fans, and fans to advertisers.

ElTrafico_1

Carson, California is about 17 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. On Google Maps it’s a prongy rectangle among Compton and Wilmington and Torrance, a wilting Minnesota. Match-day traffic on Victoria Street runs east from Interstate 110 past planned neighborhoods with names like Harbor Village and Colony Cove. Here you find screen doors, tee times, azure pools glimpsed between houses, and people who notice their neighbors’ new cars and new patios. Everybody takes the freeway to work in their own vehicles, but they’re always eyeing the adjacent lane.

By football-derby standards, Carson isn’t exactly North London. On the slushee-colored August Friday evening of the third-ever match between Galaxy (white, blue, and buttery gold) and the newly founded Los Angeles Football Club (all black, highlighted with bluer, rustier gold), the atmosphere outside StubHub Center is mostly convivial. “These guys are all Galaxy fans,” says an LAFC fan drinking backpack beers underneath a parking-lot sapling. “We shared in their tailgate. It was awesome. I don’t have anything bad to say.”

There are no club-affiliated pubs. There is no history of red cards or brawls; there are no metro stations to close and no barricades to put up. Instead, there are folding-chair picnics, kiosks offering car insurance teaser rates, children playing four-a-side on access roads. The private security is chiefly concerned with making sure nobody turns into the adjacent neighborhoods for free cul-de-sac parking. Even the Galaxy’s prodigy of feuds, Zlatan Ibrahimović, is venomless at practice beforehand. The rivalry is “fresh,” he says. As the years go by “there will be more heat in the game. The surrounding, the atmosphere—that will come.” The L.A. derby has a fantastic name already—El Tráfico—but it may be some time before there’s a pig’s head thrown at a corner-kick taker.

ElTrafico_2In his debut for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Zlatan Ibrahimović tied the first ever El Tráfico against Los Angeles FC, 3-3, with a stunning 40-yard volley after entering the game as a 71st-minute substitute. He headed Galaxy’s winning goal from an Ashley Cole cross in stoppage time.

 

The 1-1 draw is taut, nippy, and remarkably on-brand, down to the manner of the goals by Ibrahimović for Galaxy and Carlos Vela for LAFC. Galaxy are MLS’s imperial club, serial winners who’ve thrived by bringing the league’s biggest names: David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard, now Ibrahimović. He barely makes the top 20 fastest players on the pitch tonight, but Ibrahimović is still one of the best footballers of his generation, and nobody can get close to his level—neither the LAFC center backs nor his own midfielders. He scores a bouncer in the 15th minute, but by the 75th minute he’s moved toward a mode of fatalist gesticulation—see the service I am given? To be an Angeleno is to face the burdens of stardom.

Unless it is to be an outwitter—like Vela, in LAFC’s snappy deco kit. It’s Vela who wins, and then scores, LAFC’s 51st-minute equalizer—knitting a swift triangle into the edge of the Galaxy box and winning a penalty. It’s an improviser’s penalty, one that’s about being swifter than Galaxy’s daddish defenders in both step and thought. And LAFC have sold themselves—since years before the club signed its first player—as the club for L.A.’s hustling polyglot youth, younger and browner than the common Galaxy fan. This marketing has been so successful that possibly the most remarkable thing about their club isn’t that an expansion side in its first season is virtually a lock to make the playoffs, but that so many people of all kinds are so certain that the club is precisely for them.

ElTrafico_4LAFC and Los Angeles Galaxy players warm up before the MLS derby match at the 22,000 capacity, state-of-the-art Banc of California Stadium last July. The game ended in a 2-2 tie.

 

“They’ve touched fans,” says a Real Madrid supporter at the tailgate, gesturing toward his LAFC-fan friends. “They got the whole Spanish group behind them. You got Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, fucking Hondurans … ”

“They focus more toward the millennials, man,” says one of the friends, a bit later.

Another friend: “Ourselves, we’re all college graduates, we’re educated, and that’s where—I guess where LAFC really hit us.”

To be hit here—regardless of club affiliation—is to pay: $20 to park and at least $28 a ticket, plus a likely-three-figure amount for club-themed leisurewear. And for anyone hit by thirst or hunger during the match: $12 Lime-a-Rita, $9.50 chicken nachos, $4 bottled water. This is one of the strangest things about rivalry: that the two men tugging on each other’s sweaters outside the Emirates, or hurling smoke bombs at each other after the Capitolino, have almost everything in common, from their taste in stadium food and alcohol to the existential decision that football is worth fighting over. Yet each of them—and everyone here tonight—believes there is a crucial difference between the blue and the black, the spiral and the wing, Carson and Expo Park.

Certainly, in the sixth month of the rivalry, there are differences. A league, a season, a match—these are ways of producing difference, ways of sorting the 0-0-0-0 Match Day 1 league table into a ranking of talent or moral or efficiency. But for now—outside StubHub, near the black-and-blue eddies forming at the Uber pickup point and exterior restrooms—the differences seem secondary to the question of how they were produced. Who has sold Los Angeles these differences, and what exactly has been bought?

“To me, LAFC fans are hipsters,” says Freddy Lopez. It’s two days before the match. Freddy’s at a gentrification outpost called Start LA, west of downtown. He’s here to attend Secret Walls, a competitive street-art event hosted as part of MLS’s Heineken Rivalry Week, a late-August archipelago of matches and attendant promotional events that seem mostly like an education in antipathy: Here is what to hate about the New York Red Bulls. One of the Start LA warehouse walls has been whitewashed into two adjacent panels and teams of three artists—representing each side—will make live club-themed murals. Meanwhile, there’s a very loud dance playlist and a beatboxing MC flown in from the U.K. Supporters of each side mill around, collect free T-shirts and Heineken, and will soon vote (by decibel, of course) on which mural is better.

ElTrafico_3Members of The 3252, an Independent Supporters Union for LAFC, profess “undying passion for the beautiful game.” Their team finished a respectable third place in the MLS Western Conference in their first season.

 

Freddy’s wearing a Galaxy replica jersey and casting amiable glares at some of these probable hipsters. He’s been following Galaxy since their inaugural 1996 season: “It was actually initially Jorge Campos, Mexico’s superstar goalkeeper.” Freddy had watched Campos—a day-glo-jerseyed acrobat about the height of Thibaut Courtois’s ribs, who played striker one season when he was the Pumas’ second-choice goalkeeper and ended up scoring 14—on television, playing for Mexico and in the Mexican league. Now he could watch Campos in L.A. “We used to never get that,” Freddy says, “so, that made me intrigued into MLS.” Since then, Freddy’s been so engaged for so long that he doesn’t have favorite years so much as favorite epochs—“the biggest high point is the stretch of five years when we won three finals.”

Across the party, loitering by the KBBQ truck, Pedro Melgar and his friend Pee-Wee (given name Daniel), both in gold-and-black LAFC ensembles, remember some of the same moments—“Jorge Campos!” Pee-Wee exclaims, “That’s the history!” Pedro remembers joining his father, a Salvadoran immigrant, in cheering for the Galaxy. But over time their enthusiasm faded. “I always criticized them because they were not an L.A. team, always,” Pedro says. “It feels a little bit exclusive,” Pee-Wee says. LAFC is different: “It feels like a family,” Pee-Wee says. “The inclusiveness, we really try to work on that.”

Inside, after a round of sacramental beatboxing and encouragements for attendees to make various kinds of noiiiiiise, the artists begin. They’re working in just-black on the white walls—some markers and some paint. LAFC-painting captain Jake Merten’s working on a 12-foot anime character in mid free kick, while Galaxy’s Alison Bamcat outlines an astronaut with a 1996-themed flag. Further in, Galaxy’s Brandon Sopinsky is working on a Chivas USA “bandwagon” joke, and Sophia Chang has done an enormous Ibrahimović-faced soccer ball screaming “ZLATACKKKK.”

But it’s LAFC’s Nina Palomba, working with a heavy black marker, who’s stealing the show—she’s built most of an entire urban environment, a wide Angeleno spread, at the base of whole-canvas-size hills, full of Disney-manqués making pejorative remarks about L.A. Galaxy. Ultimately they win the scream-off.

Maybe it goes without saying that quality of art is not really what’s at stake here. Banksy, Picasso, and Diego Rivera could be on the LAFC roster and Freddy Lopez would still be screaming at the top of his lungs for the Galaxy. Ditto for Pee-Wee and Pedro and LAFC—they’re here not as art critics but to participate in high-decibel identity formation.

While they’re here, they’re also receiving a bit of education in how to be rivals, or how to be participants in this infant rivalry. In the old literal sense—rivalry’s from the same Latin root as river and riven; it refered originally to competitors on opposite banks—LAFC–LA Galaxy is a good rivalry, likely to be MLS’s geographically closest for a long time. But for a rivalry to crackle it also needs the accumulation of the antipathy Ibrahimović was referring to—it needs people whose fathers all loved Jorge Campos to form clear ideas of how they are different, and what is wrong with the others. It needs to educate its supporters in the signs and stations of the rivalry.

Afterward, disobeying the “have to go home” security guards, one of the artists confesses that both teams of artists were supplied with official briefing documents, offering apparently impressive levels of detail about the positive and negative features about each club. That Carson is far away, that LAFC is new and of untested durability—these truths are not, or not only, what the supporters or artists know about the clubs. They are what the clubs know about themselves, and what they feel should be communicated. Of course a rivalry that crackles is also a rivalry that sells: At the time of writing, Galaxy’s two home games against LAFC were their only two home sellouts this season.

At the center of any rivalry is a match, and the many things it means to many people. For some it means the fact of Ibrahimović, 36 now, starting to answer career-longevity questions with off-brand earnestness, still mystifyingly unmarkable. For others, Vela, nifty and abrupt. For Freddy the long history of care, and for Pee-Wee and Pedro, the comrades in the LAFC section. Parents and children come to remember something, and surely some merely to be drunk and vaguely outdoors. Dates order drinks, and deals are maybe closed in boxes.

ElTrafico_5Los Angeles Galaxy defender Ashley Cole, left, is unable to stop Los Angeles FC’s Mexican superstar, Carlos Vela, center, scoring his team’s first goal during an MLS match last March at the StubHub Center. Galaxy eventually won 4-3.

 

Among all this, there are signs of a common capacity for optimism. And there are gasps—in the 12th minute, when Ibrahimović’s put through on the LAFC left, or in the 47th, when Rossi skips toward the Galaxy box—when all believe a goal might come. It is unusual in 2017 for 27,000 people to believe at once in something, for it is complicated to believe. Belief signs student loans and mortgage forms and votes for promises. Belief moves you to L.A. from Jalisco or Topeka, but it is not much use when the payments are due or the 405 is clogged, and so most who navigate the current world closely guard their faith, permit it only in rare and tender moments. But for the duration of a match, especially one that burns with the brightness of a real rivalry, it is possible to believe in revolutions, triumphs, deliverances.

It is even possible to believe—banging the LAFC drum, or booing with the Galaxy supporters as Vela trots over for a corner—that it all comes down to you, that your song will make the difference.

Here’s Pee-Wee: “It’s awesome to have an outlet. Sometimes there’s a lot of emotions. I think having this space, where you can safely shout out, scream out, and try to beat your rival, it’s to reassert control. So, you need your space to do it safely, otherwise—”

“Respectfully, too,” Pedro interjects.

One strange thing about football, or about most sporting enterprises, about the free Heineken at Secret Walls or the free energy water being handed out outside StubHub, is that the same club that delivers all these emotional goods to its fans is, at the same time, turning around and selling those same feelings—of optimism, openness, and possibility—to as many corporate entities as it can. YouTube, for example, is currently paying LAFC $6 million a year to serve as title/shirt sponsor—and it’s not because they think Bob Bradley and Benny Feilhaber are going to click on lots of advertisements. It’s because they think that you—you in the stands, in the two hours of your week that you’ve reserved to be an unrepentant googly-eyed believer—are going to be so swept up in good feelings and identity formation that YouTube might get to be part of you, and that enough of your faithful peers will act similarly that they’ll earn their $6 million back, and more besides. Clubs are selling football to fans, and fans to advertisers.

What, specifically, are they selling? Part of the offer to LAFC supporters is generic newness, a chance for modern metropolitans to get in early on something that’s kinda-sorta guaranteed to hang around for a while. Another part is demographic, but rarely explicitly. LAFC is in some ways a reformulation of a now defunct L.A. MLS club called Chivas USA.

Chivas, founded in partnership with Liga MX titan Chivas Guadalajara, bid directly for the large community of Hispanic (specifically Mexican) Angelenos. There may have been room for such a club, but Chivas made mistakes—the side shared StubHub’s suburban location with Galaxy and ran afoul of both league rules and basic quality issues while trying to field a mostly Mexican roster. Finally, Chivas-ness may have lost as many fans as it won—expecting every Liga MX fan in L.A. to get excited about Chivas was a little like expecting every Premier League follower in New York to queue up for NYCFC. Chivas left supporters’ groups and lessons—own your stadium, win matches, keep the branding vague—and LAFC have been happy to snaffle up most of each.

But maybe what LAFC have offered their supporters, more than anything, is a chance to be part of something that wants them to be a part of it. “At the time of the club’s founding,” LAFC co-owner Tom Penn told Bleacher Report, “we weren’t going to play for three years. What we had to offer them was, You guys are with us from the beginning. And you can tell your kids and grandkids, ‘You built this club with us.’”

Early supporters—including many Chivas alumni—were consulted extensively about practically every feature of the club. The January 2016 video revealing the club’s crest has a full minute of black-and-white L.A. hagiography—families facing the camera, groups of youth playing kickups atop parking garages, pairs of shoes hung over power lines—before even getting to the logo, and 15 uses of “we” and “our” in two minutes. Somewhere in here there’s probably a line between virtuous community engagement and cynical season ticket marketing, but it’s impossible to tell where. Replica kits bearing this “we”-inflected logo start at $65, and if you wear them around town you also become a walking billboard for YouTube TV.

In LAFC’s defense, professional football in America has always been a little cynical. In England, where teams and leagues formed more or less chthonically, the Football Association spent the first decades of the game’s existence vigilantly preventing professionalization. America’s different: the NASL, MLS’s predecessor (or haunting father) was inspired by market research. Americans had been surprisingly into the 1966 World Cup, and some people thought there was money to be made. Years later, MLS’s existence began as a contractual obligation—FIFA had awarded the World Cup to the States on the condition that a professional league be established.

So in some way what’s happening in Los Angeles—and as LAFC asserts itself in particular—is merely American. Here is a community having to make unusually conscious decisions about what kind of community it is, and then some faction of that community organizing to sell an answer. In sports, you’ve just got to look at all the metaphorical team names. This doesn’t happen in Europe. In Liverpool or Barcelona, where there’s less anxiety about what it means to be from Liverpool or Barcelona, the teams don’t need totem animals—just labels. But in Dallas, Seattle, or Los Angeles—a city that didn’t have access to a transcontinental railroad until 1885, the year that the English FA capitulated to professionalism—these questions are more open. What does it mean to be an Angeleno anyway?

The answer offered by the Galaxy—it’s right there in the name—is that to be an Angeleno means being part of a process related to stardom. Something twinkles; something is illustrious. They’ve won five titles, brought Gerrard and Beckham and Ibrahimović. “They’re always bringing great talent,” Freddy Lopez says. “They’re always trying to find the next big thing.” Angeleno are talent scouts, open accepters, people who are prepared to find stardom in the world—or in themselves. Lately—witness the charge of hipsterdom, or the “Since 96” footer on the Galaxy press badges—there’s been an added claim of durability or authenticity. The Los Angeles implied by Galaxy is explicitly a launching pad—a place you come to make yourself.

But even a galaxy consists mostly of the space between the stars. And it’s also true that 10 million people live in L.A. County, and very few are famous. Nor, for the most part, are they involved in fame-adjacent projects. Beyond and around the city of Instagram models and script-pushing bartenders there is another, quiet city of deliverymen and medical students and key grips, marijuana dealers and valet parkers and auction house assistants—a city browner and less filmed than what’s imagined, a city whose becoming is, as the LAFC T-shirt says, street by street, block by block, one by one.

It’s to this earthly neighborhood that LAFC’s messaging of polyglot local striving has constantly, consciously addressed itself. The message in their name is that no metaphor is necessary: that L.A. is, itself, chthonic. That a football club of Los Angeles need say no more about itself—it is plain enough what and where Los Angeles is, plain what Los Angeles means. It means Freddy and Pee-Wee and everyone they know, immigrants or locals, mostly young and mostly proud, sure their city has a heart.

1-1, in the end, means that Galaxy have had the better end of the rivalry—from the first season of Tráficos they’ve taken five points to LAFC’s two. But it’s still a hard result. Galaxy are in a fight for the last Western Conference playoff position, and home draws don’t help. Coach Sigi Schmid, who’s struggled all season to solve defensive issues, will resign in a couple of weeks. LAFC, meanwhile, are more or less confirmed for the playoffs, and in the tunnels Bob Bradley can express some limited pride over how well his side handled Galaxy’s physical challenge: An away derby draw is usually a fine result.

Afterward, most of the crowd drives north on the 110. This is a gray river in 12 lanes, winding around Figueroa to connect downtown with the harbor. On the way north it’s elevated above the surrounding neighborhoods until about Redondo Beach Boulevard, where it dips below the surface grade. It feels more sullen after it dives, but only barely—there are noise barriers the whole way, and all you can see alongside are electric poles and treetops. Traveling on the 110 feels less like navigating Los Angeles than like leaving it briefly, entering a needy nonplace where you’re blockaded by container trucks and cut off by doctors in BMWs. That any two experiences of L.A. are often mediated by interludes on the 110 can make it hard to integrate an idea of L.A.-ness, hard to feel that separate places have anything to do with one another. This in turn makes it even more impressive that anyone in town believes in a coherent Los Angeles at all, let alone one with defined colors and a particular set of sporting values.

After 12 miles, the 110 passes LAFC’s home stadium, Banc of California—the distance covered, for a given fan, is about 15 minutes and five lane changes. But for the clubs, it’s a distance of decades and of certainty: The fundamental difference between LAFC and Galaxy is simply that one is new and the other is not. Galaxy have been far-flung because they arrived in L.A. in the full doubt of 1996—nobody knew how many seasons MLS would last, and nobody wanted to make a huge capital investment. Better to rent in Pasadena, and then to build permanently on cheap land in Carson. LAFC, meanwhile, came to a city whose appetite for soccer was already proven—the elaborate commitments it has made to its fans are possible in part because Galaxy and Chivas have shown that fans exist. In return for this favor, LAFC’s brought some excitement back to Los Angeles MLS—rivalries are fun. There’s more at stake now, a chance to get free beer and scream about murals.

It’s here—in how much each club plays a part of the same long story of soccer in Los Angeles—that they’re most truly rivals. Those who live across the river have plenty to dislike about each other, but they’re defined by what they share. And to the degree that either is selling an identity to Angelenos, isn’t that the most authentic thing an Angeleno club can do? This is a city of studios and scripts, a city that’s always made its living showing the rest of the world what it means to be American.

At StubHub Center, Galaxy and visiting supporters’ sections are behind the north goal, where both Ibrahimović and Vela scored. On the night of the derby, both made noise for hours—LAFC had brought a drum and stood in neat ranks the entire match, waving their gold cloths and chanting, simply, Ell-Ay-Eff-See. The Galaxy supporters, a broad bank of white, had brought a banner: Galactic Commandos/Bow Down. They sang too—Ell-Ay-Gal-ack-See, with the ack landing swifter and softer than the other syllables. That both chants shared a meter and three syllables was the trouble, or perhaps the beauty: Soon after Vela’s goal, both had congealed into a single L-A-(schwa)-See chant, which expressed a general throaty excitement about continuing to attend professional soccer matches in Los Angeles, and the idea that we might all become something better in the process.


This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of Eight by Eight. As an independent magazine it’s your support that enables us to continue bringing you the stories from around the football world. We hope you’ll buy the issue and join us.
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan. Photographs by @godspeedgoodsir and Imad Bolotok / LAFC.

 

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