Leagues Cup friendlies showing L.A. is a soccer market
As construction workers were putting the finishing touches on SoFi Stadium 2½ years ago, promoters were nearing an agreement to make a Barcelona-Real Madrid game one of the first sporting events to be held at the venue.
The Mexican national team asked if they could play there next.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out live crowds at sports and entertainment events for more than a year. SoFi has played host to two NFL regular seasons, a Super Bowl and concerts by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Los Bukis since then.
But it wasn’t until Wednesday that soccer finally got in the door of the $5.5-billion stadium, with the Galaxy beating Chivas of Guadalajara 2-0 in the first game of the Leagues Cup Showcase on goals from Dejan Joveljic and teenager Jonathan Pérez. Mexico City’s Club América beat LAFC on penalty kicks in the second game after the teams played 90 minutes to a scoreless draw.
Three more similar showcases will be played next month in Nashville, Salt Lake City and Cincinnati, leading to next summer’s League Cup, a monthlong tournament featuring all 47 Liga MX and MLS teams.
Organizers said attendance for the exhibition doubleheader was 71,189, a sellout. Last weekend LAFC, Angel City of the NWSL and the second-division Orange County Soccer Club all played before sold-out stadiums while an international friendly between Juventus and Real Madrid filled the Rose Bowl. Add those totals to Wednesday’s crowd and club soccer has drawn more than 212,000 fans to four Southern California venues in the last six days.
It was an amazing 24-hour period in Southern California soccer, one in which four games in L.A. and Orange counties combined to draw a record attendance of 142,990
“It shows what Los Angeles is as a soccer market,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said. “As a Major League Soccer market, as an NWSL market, as a market for the Women’s World Cup, as a market for a men’s World Cup.”
Speaking of the World Cup, Klein is also co-chair for the local organizing committee for the 2026 tournament, which convinced FIFA to select SoFi as one of 16 venues for that competition. But Wednesday’s friendlies, he said, were not a trial run for the World Cup.
“This is an event that’s taking place in their building,” he said. “It shows you what soccer can look like in SoFi. It’s soccer in the venue.”
A World Cup in the venue will require a few alterations.
FIFA requires World Cup games be played on a natural surface, for example, so a grass carpet was laid over SoFi’s artificial field Wednesday. But the width of the field, at 68¾ yards, according to organizers, was a bit narrow for a World Cup game. That can be remedied by removing demountable field-level seats in the four corners of the pitch, something that didn’t happen Wednesday.
“There’s still some work that needs to be done,” Klein said. “The system is in there for them to be able to do that. But it is very different hosting what we host[ed] and hosting a World Cup.”
If the Leagues Cup Showcase wasn’t intended to be a World Cup dress rehearsal, it was meant to highlight the growing partnership between MLS and the Liga MX, whose players will also square off for a second straight summer in an all-star game next week in Minneapolis.
“We thought that it was a good idea to generate these showcases in order to send the message to the fans, and obviously to the market, that we’re very strong together,” Liga MX President Mikel Arriola said Wednesday. “Today is very important to underline that statement because we’re playing for the first time soccer in SoFi Stadium, right? The most valuable sports property in the world.
“MLS and Liga MX jointly have the power to play in full stadiums of the NFL. That’s a great example.”
But for the partnership to really work games between teams from the two leagues have to be competitive and that hasn’t always been the case. Before Seattle’s win over Pumas in May, Liga MX teams had won 16 straight CONCACAF Champions League finals.
“Liga MX has been better than MLS historically,” América coach Fernando Ortiz said after his team beat LAFC in a seven-round penalty shootout, decided when LAFC’s José Cifuentes sent his try high over the crossbar.
Yet on this night neither of the MLS teams allowed a goal against two of Mexico’s biggest clubs, which should count for something.
“I try not to talk in trends,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, whose team leads MLS in points, wins and is second in goals but got nothing against a team that is 15th in the 18-team Liga MX table. “We saw two interesting games, two different games. And all four teams were on an equal level tonight. That is what we can confirm.
“I will not get into who’s better. I’m not sure that makes sense to do that.”
However Galaxy coach Greg Vanney says he believes the gap between the leagues is closing. His team’s two goals Wednesday — one in each half — came on Joveljic’s left-footed deflection of an Efraín Álvarez corner kick in the 28th minute and a shot from distance by Pérez and bent just inside the near post in the 63rd minute.
For Joveljic, the score will forever make his name the answer to a trivia question: Who scored the first goal in SoFi Stadium history?
Fans have apparently grown tired of waiting for the COVID pandemic to wane, judging by the crowd of 93,702 that packed the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
“They’re getting much closer. There’s a lot of respect between the two leagues,” Vanney said of the two leagues. “I see the competition being taken serious[ly]. As our rosters start to grow, and we’re getting more depth and more things in our league are growing, we have the capacity to still rotate players and find ways to put really good teams on the field.”
Vanney also liked the stadium.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “From the field perspective, I just feel like I’m in a small city. It’s an incredible structure. And I love the [that] stands basically go straight up so everybody is right over the top of the field.”
On that Cherundolo agreed.
“It was an incredible atmosphere, an amazing stadium,” he said. “Really fantastic. Looking forward to the World Cup. That will be bananas.”
Three hours after the first soccer game in SoFi history, Cherundolo was asked if he saw enough to believe the World Cup final should be played there.
“Absolutely,” he said.