The Los Angeles Football Club held a housewarming party Sunday that was nearly four years in the making.
The festivities opened with a Navy SEALs parachute team, a trained falcon named Olly, countless flags and banners and an a capella rendition of the national anthem sung by some of the 22,000 invited guests in the sellout crowd.
But the best part was saved for last, with captain Laurent Ciman’s knuckling free kick bouncing off the arms of goalkeeper Stefan Frei and into the net in stoppage time to give LAFC a 1-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders in the first home game in franchise history.
“I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of amazing places around the world. But the feeling inside that stadium today was incredible,” coach Bob Bradley said. “Maybe somebody was looking down on us.”
Asked who, Bradley smiled.
“The football gods were,” he said.
Divine intervention is unlikely. But then again, could the first game played in a stadium financed by an ownership group heavy in Hollywood celebrity end any other way?
Won for the fifth time in seven tries, making LAFC’s 5-2 start the best by an expansion team in MLS history. The victory also lifted the team to second place in the Western Conference.
Only one other MLS expansion team has finished a regular season that high: Bradley’s 1998 Chicago Fire team, which went on to win the MLS Cup.
Yet, for most of Sunday night the star attraction wasn’t the team or the game, a tense, tactical affair with little flair and even less drama.
Instead it was the building in which the game was played. Banc of California Stadium, LAFC’s $350-million mansion, is the most expensive soccer-specific venue in the U.S. and one MLS Commissioner Don Garber said has raised the bar for the rest of the league.
“It’s fantastic. It’s really spectacular,” Garber said. “It’s just what the league needs. The water level keeps getting raised.”
When Garber took over MLS in 1999, the league had one soccer-specific venue. When Minnesota United completes construction on its stadium next year, 18 of the league’s 23 teams will have one.
“It’s part of the momentum story that MLS has,” he said.
LAFC, which had traveled 14,000 miles on a six-game, season-opening trip, also had momentum on its side going into the game Sunday, riding a two-game winning streak and averaging a league-best 2.67 goals per game.
But it had only one shot on goal in the first half and was dangerous only in spurts in the second half. In the 53rd minute, Marcos Urena got behind the Seattle defense and raced into the 18-yard box alone, only to slip as he reached for a through ball from Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Then in the 79th minute, Latif Blessing and Walker Zimmerman battled for a loose ball at the right post, with Zimmerman finally heading his attempt on top of the net.
As the game plodded into stoppage time, the teams appeared content to settle for a tie. But Ciman, who had scored on a long free kick the week before in Montreal, had other ideas when he settled over the ball for a free kick from 35 yards.
“There was no strategy,” the Belgian center-back said. “I saw the position of some of the [Seattle] players and I just thought it would be a good chance to go to goal.”
Frei saw the shot clearly, but the ball appeared to dip at the last second, bouncing off the goalkeeper’s arms and into the net, setting off a deafening cheer in the stadium.
“As the ball traveled and went it, I just said ‘Good,’” Ciman said with a smile.
For Bradley, the shot turned what had been a good night into a great one.
“Just walking out there at the beginning was awesome. The field was incredible,” Bradley said. “[But] my favorite part was seeing the ball go in.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11