LAFC have become the coolest team in MLS block by block, street by street, person by person.
On the surface, it’s easy to make an argument for the Supporters’ Shield leaders as the “It” team of the league. For one, they’re the Supporters’ Shield leaders. But then there’s the fact that they’re based in one of the world’s trendiest cities. There is an all-star cast of celebrity owners that, if you haven’t heard, includes Will Ferrell and Mia Hamm. There is the sleek and classy color scheme. There is a gorgeous stadium regularly filled with fans, including celebrity types. There’s Bob Br…….the colors are like, really great, y’all.
But there's something deeper that contributes to LAFC’s essence of cool. It’s a club-wide commitment to creating a culture that displays the most authentic parts of the World’s Capital of Pretending to Be Someone Else.
Now, obviously, there’s a major issue with this piece staring you in the face. A soccer writer is talking about cool. You’re probably laughing at the paradox. Well first off, you jerk. Secondly, you’re right. To clarify “cool,” I enlisted the help of the coolest person from Los Angeles to have ever acknowledged my existence. Here’s what LeVar Burton had to say about cool:
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“I’ve always admired the icons of cool. I believe the essence of cool is the element of UN-attachment. Not DE-tached necessarily. Unattached! One has to be attached in order to detach. Unattachment is a whole other boss level of existence. Some of the coolest people I can think of are unattached to the opinions of others. It’s not that they don’t care what others think of them. They are confidently, even unconsciously unattached. Think Steve McQueen, Miles Davis or insert your own cool icon.”
In short then, cool is confidence to not care about superficial perceptions. In LAFC’s case, that confidence comes from community. And that community comes from a culture built from the ground up without the baggage that you might expect from a brand new team in a city that already had a well-known soccer club.
LAFC never set out to be cool. If they had, they never would have been.
The formula for "Cool"
Instead, people like — and the fact that his title even exists should tell you everything — LAFC EVP of brand and community, Rich Orosco, set out to build a community that didn’t fall into the traps that other Los Angeles teams stumble into. A diverse, passionate and very Los Angeles fanbase was there to be had. LAFC just had to tap into it.
“From day one, what we were extremely mindful about how can we build symbolism around our club and an identity around our club that would highlight and showcase everything amazing about the city. If you're very, very, very careful about representing the authenticity of the city, then you're going to tap into people who are likeminded and everything's going to grow on itself,” Orosco said.
“If you see how other teams promote themselves in this market and present themselves, you will see the cliche Hollywood sign. You will see the cliched palm tree. You'll see the cliche surfboard, and it's very surface. We were about an alley and Echo Park with telephone wires and a person who's juggling a soccer ball with an LAFC cap on. We were about exploring all of the incredible layers of the city. Not the tourist imagery and surface imagery that other teams go after. Because all of us who visit here, and mostly those of us who live here, we understand that there's so much more than the cliches.”
From that desire for authenticity, a mantra grew. Street by street. Block by block. One by one. The club worked to create a community with a “real connection” and “real purpose” with the mentality that each and every person they interacted with mattered. If they were able to show that, then “real” would be easy.
“‘Street by street. Block by block. One by one.’ works because people have felt listened to from day one. Not only were we listening, but we were acting,” Orosco said.
In this case, acting meant fulfilling two of the new supporters’ biggest requests. The first being a supporters’ bar. The second being a safe standing section that has now become synonymous with Banc of California Stadium and the club’s most iconic chant, the aesthetically great side-to-side bouncing of “Jump for LA Football club” that involves an act of commitment to supporting the club that many of us would never dare to do: Cardio.
“It's insane,” Jimmy Lopez, president of LAFC’s Supporters’ Group, 3252, said. “I'm one of the capos and you'll see people looking at me be like, ‘Really? We're going to go three more times?’ But there are occasions where we're doing it and the team scores, and they'll tell us after 'Hey, you, inspired us. You rallied us. You gave us a little oomph to push forward.'"
The fans seem to feel heard by each part of the club, and that basic connection at every level along with the extensive community outreach has led to a diverse fanbase that is perhaps the most authentically Los Angeles (and therefore cool) part of the club.
“They do a very good job getting a little bit of everything as far as the many, many cultures, that you see in LA. They have t-shirts made for Steven Beitashour in Farsi and in Vietnamese for Lee Nguyen,” Alicia Rodriguez of MLSsoccer.com and SBNation’s Angels on Parade said.
“I think that that kind of thing, even something like making a shirt so that the Iranian kids in LA can have somebody that they can be like, ‘I'm represented this is awesome.’ I think that goes a long way. To me, you get that mix of the glitz and the grit and the rich and the poor and the various kinds of foods and the various kinds of music. All that is wrapped up into the experience when you go to a game.”
All of this goes against the grain of what you would probably expect from a team trying to create a foothold in a city with a successful team already established. There is no little brother syndrome at Banc of California Stadium.
“We're not here to compare. We're here to show the world who we are,” Lopez said. “Because when you compare yourself, you're always trying to play catch up. But when it's a clean slate for us, it's fresh. It's new. It's us. And that's how we're presenting it.”
The team is cool, too
It’s a community that believes enough in itself to be deeply passionate about what it stands for and impossibly uninterested in what those outside of it think of that. Of course, it does help a bit when the product on the field is the best the league has ever seen.
There couldn’t be depth without a surface-level identity. And right now the surface-level identity is that of a team that is absolutely smashing the rest of the league as in ohmygosh they’re probably the best team in MLS history I’m not even remotely kidding they’re beating everyone by like a hundred.
Except for Colorado a few weeks ago. This is still the single most baffling thing to happen this year.
Even with a loss to the Rapids that I promise actually happened, LAFC is on pace to finish the year with 78 points, 90 goals for and a goal differential of +61. All of these things are very much records.
Not only are they winning, they’re winning in the same manner as someone hunting a squirrel using a bazooka. The counter-pressing is relentless and the talent implementing it makes it almost unfair. The team is full of guys who have bought into Bob Bradley’s philosophy and who have the talent to turn it into scorched earth soccer. It feels like every team they play could be down six at any moment.
It’s a blast to watch, and the whole thing is spearheaded by Carlos Vela, who may be in the midst of the greatest statistical season in MLS history. Vela’s 19 goals and 12 assists are each tops in the league and LAFC still has 14 games to play. Those are absurd numbers. For a basic comparison, in Diego Valeri’s phenomenal, MVP-winning 2017 season he finished with 21 goals and 11 assists. Vela has him beat on assists already and he may top 21 goals...I don’t know, by the first derby match?
He’s incredible but different about the way he commands attention compared to his El Tráfico rivals.
It was practically predetermined that you were going to be interested in David Beckham. You basically have to care that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in LA. The myths are too big to ignore. But being obligated to show interest in something isn’t exactly cool. It’s like someone butting into a conversation about music to recommend The Beatles. Of course they’re great, but it’s such an obvious opinion it’s not an interesting one.
There’s no one that has forced you to pay attention to Carlos Vela since he came to MLS except Carlos Vela. Beckham and Zlatan and Gerrard and others were/are monolithic brands. They’re deservedly giants. But when decidedly less famous Carlos Vela is tearing through the league, the lack of Hollywood-style star power just makes him cooler.
To use a geographically relevant example, It’s like that Beatles person broke into a conversation about now-semi-defunct LA group Odd Future. The group was so inventive and so abrasive that the chances of hearing them on the radio were next to none, but you absolutely couldn’t ignore them. Carlos Vela, in this case, is Tyler, the Creator, while Walker Zimmerman is clearly Hodgy and Diego Rossi is Earl Sweatshirt and Mohamed El-Munir is Jasper Dolphin and Adama Diomande is like a mix between Frank Ocean and Syd tha Kyd and wait what was I doing?
Anyway, cool will only get you so far. It doesn’t mean much to be the town’s en vogue club if you can’t beat your crosstown rival. LAFC failed in their three attempts last season. And those incredible numbers will feel a little less important in the heart of the summer if they come without three points against a team referred to in LAFC circles as simply, “Carson.”
LAFC doesn’t care what you think. But they’d be lying if they said that a win in El Trafico wouldn’t make them feel a little cooler. Regardless of the result though, it appears that their culture of cool is here to stay.
“All of us, all of us have created a rule or a real personal connection with each other. When you walk into the stadium you have people during ‘Jump for LA Football Club’ putting their arms around strangers because they feel a real connection with each other,” Orosco said. “I think what we've created — if you were to define cool — is we’ve created a community with a real connection with each other and a real purpose.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.