Major League Soccer is Surging
Written by Paul Taupier
I grew up in San Diego’s suburban North County, but I was born in Los Angeles and toddled around a predominantly Cuban neighborhood three miles from where Carson’s StubHub Center now sits. My father always referred to the metropolitan sprawl as Hell-A but that didn’t stop him from returning regularly with my mother, my sisters and I to visit cousins or catch a sporting event. The Lakers in gold and purple at the Forum. Dodgers at the still shiny house in Chavez Ravine. And the LA Aztecs soccer team taking on Pelé and the New York Cosmos at the Coliseum.
Through the years that followed I grew to envy European and South American soccer cultures. I cheered along with my Argentine and English friends during televised friendlies and World Cup matches when team USA failed to advance. I collected the jerseys of foreign teams. All along I always wished for a strong American league and a local team of my own with a supporter culture to be a part of.
Seven years ago, a generation after the NASL 1.0 days of George Best and Johan Cruyff, I finally succumbed to the David Beckham buzz and drove with my son up the 5 and 405 freeways to see the LA Galaxy in action. There at the venue then called the Home Depot Center I had a revelation!
The stands were full, or nearly so. Three supporters groups sang and chanted loudly, the crowd occasionally joining in. There were banners and flags and thrown streamers. The stadium was built for the game and the pitch was groomed to perfection. Landon Donovan was bombing the flanks, Robbie Keane was nimble as a ballet dancer, flicking in goals for fun and David Beckham was bending in his precision corner and free kicks. The air was alive!
I suddenly felt that I had been cheating myself to accept the refrain that Major League Soccer was not worth watching. To be fair I’d missed out on the sins of the earliest years, and this was a dynastic period for the Galaxy. But for me, the MLS caricatures vanished right there and then.
As one San Diego sports writer with an affinity for sleeper cells will remind you, MLS is not the Premier League. Our top flight is on an enviable tear though; a trajectory of growth and rapid improvement few leagues can replicate. Every year since I began paying attention salary caps are raised (or rules created to circumvent them), better players arrive, depth improves, squads get faster, more skilled, and younger (the average player age in MLS is 26). As in any league, on a bad day the soccer can underwhelm. Most matches are genuinely fun and exciting. And once in a while what happens on the field is truly special.
Which brings us to Saturday March 31, 2018. I was lucky to join some San Diego soccer community friends at the first ever installment of the new Los Angeles derby, dubbed by fans in the weeks leading up to it, El Tráfico.
When we arrived the StubHub Center was already packed and buzzing a full two hours before kickoff. Micheladas, bloody marys and warm sunshine lubricated the crowds. So did the prospect of a cross-town rivalry, and the news that Zlatan Ibrahimović, one of the top players of his generation, had left the famous Manchester United to join the Los Angeles Galaxy and was set to see minutes off the bench.
LAFC’s 3252 supporters union made a dramatic processional entrance decked from head to heels in black and gold. For an hour and a half before the match began they stood and chanted, swinging scarves in unison and serving notice to the Galaxy’s Angel City Brigade, Riot Squad and Galaxians that a new era had arrived.
What followed was truly thrilling. LAFC’s star striker Carlos Vela put two in the Galaxy’s net, the first coming mere minutes after kickoff. In the second half, a third LAFC goal went in off the foot of Galaxy defender Daniel Steres to put LAFC up 3-0. LAFC’s players were dangerous on and off the ball and counterattacked to plan. The Galaxy created chances to score but failed to finish. Then something extraordinary. LAFC fans took up a humiliating chant of olé! with every LAFC touch of the ball. In Galaxy’s house! The taunt sparked Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget to charge ahead, take a pass and score the first goal of a historic rally.
Galaxy fans began chanting for Zlatan, and in the 71st minute the Lion of Los Angeles came on to a riot of celebration. His presence changed the game as he drew LAFC players, opening lanes for his teammates. Galaxy midfielder Chris Pontius drove in a fantastic diving header and it was suddenly a 3-2 match. After a long kick forward by the Galaxy’s goalkeeper was cleared by Steres, Ibrahimović ran up field, anticipated the bounce of an aerial duel and strode in to strike a sweet, decisive, powerful side volley strike from 40 yards out.
The ball curved right, then over, then left and downward behind LAFC’s goalkeeper into the netting. Golazoooooo! These words were hollered all around, and by commentators in a dozen languages too. It was a stunning and arrogant feat. The shot heard round the world is already being called the most indelible moment in MLS history.
With the match tied in the dying moments, Ibrahimović took a high cross from teammate Ashley Cole and headed in the game winner to another emotional outburst. The word heard most: scripted. As in Hollywood could not have scripted a better first derby, a better comeback, a better star player debut.
On the bus ride home, I found I’d lost my voice. Others spoke in whispers. Somebody lit up like a kid on Christmas morning describing events to a friend on the phone. I soaked in that elated feeling and on that bus rolling south toward San Diego I drifted off dreaming of scripts.
What if San Diego were to write its own Major League Soccer story? My dream screenplay would open with a large community of soccer players, coaches and fans hungry for their own top flight team. A group of investors would emerge to announce from the deck of a warship their commitment to bring a team and to build a state of the art stadium. They’d care about the community and want to do something good and lasting. There’d be a quest for land in the urban core with space for an exciting sports and entertainment district, housing on a major transit line, a river park. And nearby, an international training center to lure in the world’s most famous teams for off season training and exhibition matches.
The cast would include a charismatic television mogul with the platform to help grow soccer into America’s premier sport, and the force of personality to turn skeptics into believers. Maybe a couple of legendary American soccer players to join the cause and champion increased cohesion in our youth leagues system and a foster a new pro team academy. For antagonists, a group of entrenched real estate developers itching for a fight, willing to sling mud, and plotting to abscond with San Diego’s golden opportunity for themselves.
As the bus arrived the hissing of venomous snakes became the sound of airbrakes. I awoke wondering if I had really seen the day’s events. I stretched and stepped out. Yes, the greatest American soccer match ever had just been played in Southern California and nobody could have scripted it better! And yes, the greatest San Diego soccer script has been written too! The cast has been assembled. Now all there is to do is to act it all out and witness as history unfolds.
Here’s to happy endings.