LAFC fans, players, even owners awed by Banc of California Stadium's debut

LOS ANGELES – Right up until Laurent Ciman blasted his second scorcher in as many games from a 35-yard free kick, causing Stefan Frei enough trouble to give Banc of California Stadium its storybook opening home victory, the match had been tense.

LAFC and the Seattle Sounders took turns peppering the goal with half-chances and near-misses. Sounders players nipped at Carlos Vela’s heels and LAFC’s defenders dug theirs in to keep a potent Seattle attack off the scoresheet.

Everything about the match was on a razor’s edge — you just never know it exploring the various spaces at MLS’s newest venue as Angelenos took in the city’s sparkling new footballing cathedral.

“From here, you feel like the chants echo all the way down Figueroa, throughout Los Angeles,” said Mark Rojas of the 3252 supporters group during halftime, standing several rows from the field in the raucous North End. “This is a dream come true.”

Against the backdrop of a quintessentially amber LA sunset, the 3252 unveiled a “Shoulder to Shoulder” tifo and belted out the national anthem to start the match, and they didn’t let up until long after the final fumes of gold smoke had evaporated into the night air.

“We rode the train together up here from our bar Beer Belly in Long Beach,” Micael Pradon, an LAFC supporter who founded a social club called Long Beach Chrome, said at the pre-match fan fest. “The stadium, the club, it’s such a beautiful evolution.”

Laying out on the lawn at Christmas Tree Lane, BBQ flames flickering over his right shoulder, kids running around with soccer balls on his left, Pradon was among thousands of others already in ecstasy long before Ciman’s dramatic winner.

Supporters in black and gold weren’t the only ones who basked in the stadium’s maiden match atmosphere, a venue built with volume and intimacy in mind.

“I can touch the net,” Cody, a six-year Sounders ticket holder who made a birthday trip down for the occasion to visit his LA-based brother, told MLSsoccer.com. “I wish we could be this close in Seattle.”

He and the rest of his Rave Green contingent — a six-person mix of LA transplants and Seattle visitors — reveled in the action from the second row at the stadium’s south end. From there, the groups’ “We love you Stefan,” chants had only a few yards to travel before reaching the veteran Sounder goalkeeper’s ears.

Fans salute Laurent Ciman postgame | USA Today Sports Images

No sooner had that adoration left their lips than the family patriarch, Craig, stooped to block a 50th-minute Benny Feilhaber blast that narrowly missed Frei’s net.

“We have to find the YouTube clip of that,” son Tyler — whose self-proclaimed divided loyalties saw him don a Sounder’s jersey underneath LAFC scarf — joked right after his dad had his moment.

Though they love CenturyLink Field’s large crowds and lauded gameday experience, they admitted that, in a supporter fantasy land, they’d prefer to an intimate soccer-specific stadium like Banc of California in Seattle.

“This is like being behind home plate without the net,” Cody said in awe.

A range of faces in the concourse are indicative of what the expansion club has brought with them to MLS and the stadium: club falconer Ken Miknuk (who bestowed upon co-owner Will Farrell the honor of releasing "Olly" in a pre-match ritual), tongue-in-cheek funnyman Gary Gold (star of a web series about a washed-up British player desperate to get into LAFC's ranks), and club co-owner Nomar Garciaparra.

LAFC supporters celebrate at Banc of California Stadium | USA Today Sports Images

“That’s a great comparison,” the retired LA Dodgers hero said when told of the home-plate reference to the stadium’s intimacy. “I was out there when [the players] were warming up and they were actually talking about that. They were saying that even the seats that were up top feel like they are on top of you. [The LAFC players] said even the Sounders players were talking about it too, they were taking it in.”

Goalscorer Ciman was so immersed in that intimacy — and the passion it augurs — that teammate Steve Beitashour had to scream at the LAFC captain to get back into position for the final few seconds of the match.

As the 22,000 gold-and-black metallic tifo sheets shook wildly across the stadium at the final whistle — and Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swingers” became the final song in a playlist that included Rage Against The Machine (after the goal), Dr. Dre (during the lineup unveiling), and 2Pac (when the players first took the field) — a memorably emotional evening was complete.

“What’s special is the fact that not only LAFC understands the community, who wanted this stadium, but that the community understands why LAFC makes sense now,” said Pradon.

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