In many ways, Southern California is the torchbearer for American soccer.
Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, holders of MLS and U.S. Open cups, help set the standard in terms of championships while boasting a legion of supporters. Newcomers Chivas USA, meanwhile, have had unparalleled success with corporate sponsors.
During a recent media round table at The Home Depot Center, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said that, beyond the on-the-field success of the local soccer clubs, a tangible relationship between club and community exists in Southern California.
"We've got two teams that are very deeply connected in the community and most importantly we have significance and social relevance," Garber said. "We talk about what things we need to do to be successful: We need to be important within the community. I don't mean that from a community relations perspective as much as I mean that if you are a soccer fan (in this community), we want you to be a fan of the Galaxy or we want you to be a fan of Chivas USA."
For the moment, Galaxy fans are more prevalent, at least those that attend matches. The Galaxy led the league in attendance last season for the third consecutive year, averaging 24,402 per game; only Real Salt Lake had an average greater than 18,000. The Galaxy rewarded their fans with two championships in 2005, first winning the U.S. Open Cup before their hometown fans, then beating New England in MLS Cup 2005 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
The Galaxy have established a rich soccer tradition and helped build a unique soccer culture in this country and, Garber said, are "the model franchise for Major League Soccer."
"In a short period of time we've been able to do something in this market that I don't think we envisioned when this league was founded," Garber said. "You hear a lot about New York being important for the growth of professional soccer but what we have here in Los Angeles is really the driver of Major League Soccer's growth and a big part of the success we have today after our first 10 years."
Among the aspects of the greater Los Angeles area that helps the region stand out from the rest of the nation, the both clubs enjoy a wealth of media coverage and play in an impressive stadium.
"We've got media coverage and beat writers in multiple newspapers (in Los Angeles)," Garber said. "We've got television contracts that are paying us rights fees to broadcast our games. Our television ratings here locally rival that of other professional sports leagues. We've got a stadium that is really the model stadium for those being built around the country. We believe we're turning the corner that all those soccer-involved people in the community are connecting with one of our two teams. That is something that is very important to the continued growth of Major League Soccer."
Chivas USA, meanwhile, has raked in sponsors with stunning success. Recently, Chivas USA announced a partnership with Mexican airline Aeromexico; Thursday, Garber toured the facilities at nearby Bell Gardens with whom Chivas USA have a unique partnership.
"One of the great success stories that we have in our entire league is our sponsorship business we have here with Chivas USA," Garber said. "It is probably double or triple that of any other club in our league other than the Galaxy and that's a statement to (Co-Owner) Antonio (Cue) and (club CEO) Javier (Leon) and (General Manager) Whit (Haskel)."
Garber also marveled at the continued success of The Home Depot Center. Built in 2003, the stadium has already hosted two MLS Cups, one U.S. Open Cup final, one MLS All-Star Game as well as the Galaxy-Real Madrid match last summer. Garber also hinted at another renowned international club facing an MLS opponent here this summer.
But beyond the illustrious albeit short history of the facility, The Home Depot Center has in many ways become the model from which other stadiums are built.
The league's recent announcement of its support for a $1 billion project at Rowan University in New Jersey -- which will feature a soccer-specific stadium surrounded by housing, restaurants, stores and other sports facilities -- is "totally based on the model of the Home Depot Center," Garber said. Rowan officials are "replicating that in a market we desperately want to be in and have been trying to get into over the last 10 years," Garber said, calling the proposed stadium the "East Coast version of The Home Depot Center."
Garber opened the chat by talking about Doug Hamilton, the Galaxy executive who died March 9 of a heart attack.
"Doug was a guy who really represented what's great about our league. He came up through the ranks, played as a young kid and went through as a college player, worked on a commercial side and struggled through our trials and tribulations in Miami then came out here and helped build the model franchise for Major League Soccer," Garber said. "Those contributions are something we'll forever miss but never forget."
Luis Bueno is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.