CARSON, Calif. – The Battle of Los Angeles has already begun, as the defaced mural outside Los Angeles Football Club's downtown headquarters can attest. But good luck finding any signs of that around StubHub Center.
The LA Galaxy know there's a new rival in town, expect that rival to be competitive and readily acknowledge their excitement for the coming matches – and for how it could transform soccer in Southern California. That said, the incumbents say LAFC are not on their mind.
“I don't think about LAFC at all,” said Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid.
Schmid, who stepped in last August for his second stint as Galaxy head coach, has enough on the brain following an offseason rebuild after last year's worst-in-MLS campaign. Getting everyone in tune is the first priority ahead of LA's March 4 opener against the Portland Timbers. The rest of it, the new derby and so forth, is for the fans, the pundits and the marketing departments.
The first meeting is still a ways off, on March 31 at StubHub Center, and the Galaxy won't visit LAFC's Banc of California Stadium until late July. There's a natural rivalry in place, but it takes time to build the real thing, and that'll come once the showdowns begin.
“It hasn't hit us yet,” said midfielder Baggio Husidic, the longest-serving player on the Galaxy’s roster. “Once you get into the competitive stuff, it will be pretty emotional for all of us. ... Hopefully, it's pretty intense, and we'll try to show that we're the team [in LA].”
That last bit from Husidic, that's a point of contention with LAFC supporters. Their rhetoric is that the new club, playing in one of the most iconic spots in the city – next door to the Coliseum – is Los Angeles' team. The Galaxy? Those guys, 12 miles south on the Harbor Freeway, are from Carson.
“We hear it all the time,” Galaxy defender Daniel Steres said. “But we're still the Los Angeles Galaxy, and we're still going to be Los Angeles.”
Galaxy supporters at StubHub Center | USA Today Sports Images
How the rivalry will divide Southern California is anyone's guess, and it's not cropped up in either team's marketing campaigns ahead of the new season. The Galaxy have an established fan base. But LAFC is closer to the valleys and points north, and have siphoned supporters from those who cheered on Chivas USA and others who never boarded the Galaxy's bandwagon.
“It's going to be a battle, that's what it's going to be,” said Steres, who grew up a Galaxy fan in the San Fernando Valley. “I think you're going to see two teams really fighting it out to see who's going to grab all the fans from Los Angeles. ... I hope fans who are true fans of the Galaxy will keep supporting us, but we've got to prove it, we've got to earn it.
“Obviously, last year [was a] down year [for us], and [LAFC are] coming to fight, so we've got to go prove that we are the Galaxy.”
Having LAFC in the marketplace “is going to create energy, is going to create buzz,” Galaxy president Chris Klein said.
“We believe that our fans define rivalries, and so it's up to them to define it, but certainly we can see it there,” said Klein, a former MLS midfielder. “When you have that, when you have someone looking at you and trying to get to where you are and trying to knock you off that perch, it inherently makes you better.
“So we're looking forward to having that energy in the marketplace. And I think it's something where the rising tide can certainly life all boats, and that's what we're looking for here.”
The fans have been jawing at each other for awhile, since early last season when some LAFC supporters posted photos of themselves with defaced Galaxy banners. Soon after, the LAFC mural was altered to read “GALAXY.”
That crosses a line better uncrossed, but the passion is OK.
Carlos Vela with LAFC fans | Courtesy of LAFC
“You want the fans not to like each other and root against each other,” said Husidic, the last remaining Galaxy player to have faced off against LAFC’s shuttered predecessors Chivas USA. “They won't [go too far]. I think most of the fans are good people that just support their club, and I'm excited for them to boo us and for our fans to boo them.”
LA's players say they're excited for the rivalry and plan to get the better of their neighbors.
“We can't lose to these guys,” noted left back Ashley Cole, a veteran of the Arsenal-Tottenham and Roma-Lazio derbies. Midfielder Sebastian Lletget says the Galaxy will “go into that game with a big chip on our shoulder. We have to beat them. There's no two ways about that.”
Both teams feature Mexican stars in this most Mexican of US cities, Carlos Vela for LAFC and the dos Santos brothers for the Galaxy, and even they are talking smack already.
“I told [Vela] to have good luck in life,” said Jonathan dos Santos, who mans the Galaxy midfield next to his brother Giovani. “But not in soccer.”
The Galaxy's SuperClasico derby with Chivas USA was at its best during the Goats' brief glory years – the high point coming in a Western Conference semifinal showdown in the 2009 MLS Cup Playoffs, where LA won 3-2 on aggregate. But it meant nothing to the team by the end, when the Goats couldn't compete.
“Our expectation has to be that they're going to good,” Klein said. “If we have good games, that's how storylines get created.”
Schmid, who as the Seattle Sounders’ longtime coach took part in their iconic Cascadia rivalry with Portland, suggested a City of Angels Trophy go to the winner – but remember, he's really not thinking about it at all.
“Right now we're just worried about our team,” he said. “Whatever team [LAFC] turns out and however good they are, that's something Bob [Bradley]'s working on with them right now.”