The two friends wore red Bayern Munich jerseys, the club’s famous badge sewn across each of their hearts. They laughed and reminisced, talking over the hundreds of fellow Bayern fans chanting behind them. Then, with a clink of their beers, they toasted to a night they “won’t forget.”
Five years ago, Thomas Maldonado and Oscar Cajahuaringa were two of seven founding members of Bayern Munich’s official Los Angeles supporters club, a group now with more than 400 registered fans. For the first time since then, the German powerhouse played in Southern California on Wednesday night, losing to Arsenal 2-1 in a preseason friendly inside Dignity Health Sports Park.
“For them to be here,” added Deborah Klein Lopez, an Agoura Hills city council member who also helped create the supporters club in 2014, “it’s once in a lifetime.”
Wednesday’s match, decided by Eddie Nketiah’s go-ahead 88th-minute redirection, was just one stop on both clubs’ obligatory “tour” of the United States for the International Champions Cup. The tuneup result was bereft of much meaning. Their regular seasons are still nearly a month away.
“We are at the start of our preparation,” Bayern coach Niko Kovac said through an interpreter, later adding: “The result is not that important.”
Any indifference on the field, however, was belied by a vibrant atmosphere in the stands. A nonstop party pulsed through the sold-out crowd of 26,704.
“There’s no feeling like being with people that share everything you’re passionate about,” said Maldonado, the president of the L.A. Bayern supporters club. “We don’t get that out here.”
Indeed, European soccer fandom can often be an isolating experience. Supporters are a continent apart from their clubs. On the West Coast, most games start around dawn. Connecting with fellow fans can be a challenge. Even Bayern, a huge international brand, didn’t have an official Los Angeles supporters club before 2014.
“We wanted a place to feel like we could all join together,” Maldonado said. “We never had that.”
Wednesday was a rare treat for both fan bases. Arsenal supporters from across the state and country staged their own pregame tailgate.
“It’s about the people,” said Adrian Cazares, a member and volunteer organizer in Arsenal’s American supporter group. “The people that you meet from every city that comes to these things, those are lifelong relationships.”
An Arsenal fan since 1998, when he and his college roommates began playing FIFA video games on their Sega Genesis, Cazares walked into Wednesday’s game wearing a white “Arsenal Summer Tour 2019” T-shirt. Two days earlier, he was in Colorado on Monday to watch the club’s 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids.
“It’s positive to be together,” Arsenal coach Unai Emery said of the club’s U.S. fans. “Giving them the opportunity to watch matches live and feeling their support for us.”
Those packed inside the stadium Wednesday didn’t care about the dichotomy; that while they cheered, most the rest of the soccer world rolled its collective eyes at the inconsequential contest. They didn’t need the result to matter. Their memories will.
“The games, it is what it is. But this,” Cazares said, turning his gaze to the red-clad sea of “Gooners” – the nickname for Arsenal fans — surrounding him, “this is what it’s all about.”