Column: LAFC christens new Banc of California Stadium with a thrilling win, and Angelenos feel right at home
The city glistened in the distance, the Los Angeles skyline glowing through an opening in the giant white canopies.
The city chugged along the edges, slowly streaming cars gleaming from both Figueroa Street and the 110 Freeway.
Beneath it all the city’s heart thumped, on a giant patch of Bermuda grass surrounded by a diverse collection of Angelenos, thousands of them, constantly chanting and cheering and connecting.
“Los-An-gel-es, oh, oh, oh, oh,’’ the fans sang, again and again, delighting in this new home within a home.
The official opening of the 22,000-seat Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park on Sunday night was about more than a soccer match or the new Los Angeles Football Club that hosted it.
It was the unlocking of something completely different but long envisioned — a new address for Los Angeles’ favorite sport, catering to Los Angeles’ most fervent fans, deep in the middle of Los Angeles.
“The city of Los Angeles is now officially a soccer town!’’ shouted Mike Davis, 25, a digital producer standing next to the deafening North End supporters’ section. “Look around. This is South-Central, this is Mid-City, this is East L.A., this is all of us.’’
And for a couple of hours, it was wonderful, Staples Center loud, Dodger Stadium crazy, the building beautiful and rowdy and perfect.
It ended in — what else? — Hollywood fashion when LAFC captain Laurent Ciman scored the winning goal on a knuckling free kick from 35 feet that bounced off the hands of Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei in stoppage time to give LAFC a 1-0 victory for its fifth win in seven games in its debut season.
Ciman ran wildly to the sidelines. Gold smoke poured from the stands. Fans waved flags and flapped pieces of shiny gold plastic. After the game ended, Ciman ran to the edge of the seats and led the cheers, and, as I’m writing this, 30 minutes later, the North End supporters section is still full and singing.
“There was a lot of excitement, and every player felt it,’’ said Belgium’s Ciman, speaking French through a translator, adding, “The only thing the team wanted to do was answer, give back to the fans, and the fans gave back to the team, it was a win-win situation for everyone.’’
The loudspeakers blared the victory song “Hollywood Swinging.’’ It was not the typical “I Love L.A.’’ song played by winning Los Angeles sports teams.
Yet on this night, it felt even cooler. Absolutely, this place really does love L.A.
“This is one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever been part of in Los Angeles and the energy is incredible,’’ said Will Strickland, a 37-year-old from Koreatown, who with his wife Melanie were LAFC’s first season ticket holders. “The world’s game in the world’s city isn’t a cliché, it’s reality.’’
When LAFC was formed three and a half years ago, a collection of 30 owners led by Chairman Peter Guber wanted to create a soccer culture that more closely resembled the downtown image of the Dodgers.
“The Dodgers are our North Pole, we want to become another cultural icon for the city,’’ said Rich Orosco, LAFC’s executive vice president of brand and community.
It only figures that the venue, which took just 20 months to build, is the first open-air stadium to be constructed in Los Angeles since Dodger Stadium in 1962.
“We created this to not be about wins and losses … this is meant to be a unifying force for the city,’’ said Orosco. “The plan is to look like the city in every way, shape and form.’’
The place cost $350 million, the most expensive soccer-specific stadium in the country, and includes the usual luxury clubs and suites with tickets ranging from $20 to $155. But it also feels wonderfully real, from the concrete concourses, to the city backdrop, to LAFC’s pitch-black and California gold colors.
The stadium is on the site of the old Los Angeles Sports Arena. Before Sunday, the last person to perform in this space was Bruce Springsteen, who closed the Sports Arena with a concert in the spring of 2016.
The place feels like a song the Boss would have written. The first song sung here would have made the Boss proud.
It was Sunday’s inaugural national anthem and, no, it wasn’t sung by some former “American Idol’’ star. It was led, and sung, by the several thousand fans in the North End grandstand. Their group is called “3252,’’ named after the number of spaces available for people to stand and cheer in their section. After the deep-throated anthem ended, the group covered itself in a tarp that read “Shoulder to Shoulder,’’ a theme that is reprinted inside the LAFC jerseys.
“This is just what L.A. needs, something to bring it together, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, look at everyone out there,’’ said Chris Garcia, 30, a Mexican American from La Puente who was watching from one of the stadium’s fan-friendly end zone railings.
Standing next to Garcia was Otto Rosal, a dental marketing consultant and Costa Rica native from Santa Fe Springs. The two men had just met at the game, yet, wearing similar LAFC jerseys and cheering together to the same constant drumbeat, they were on the same team.
“The ambiance here is incredible,’’ Rosal said. “I never thought I’d see something like this in downtown L.A.’’
Then there was the pregame ritual that did not involve some silly stuffed mascot, but a falcon being set loose by Will Ferrell, one of the club’s high-profile co-owners along with Magic Johnson, Mia Hamm-Garciaparra and her husband, Nomar.
The falcon’s name? Olly, short for Olvera Street.
Hot night, soccer in the city.
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