The anti-Galaxy: How LAFC is uniting the disenfranchised masses

A team months from its first game is filling a void with thousands of fans in Los Angeles.

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LOS ANGELES -- The LA Galaxy has ruled Major League Soccer for much of the past decade, and all that the league has become stems from the club's pursuit of one David Beckham.

It gave the league a presence overseas, made the star-studded Galaxy the American team soccer fans anywhere on earth could name, and brought an element of Hollywood to the drab SoCal terrain of Carson.

Led by American soccer's most revered figure, LA snagged its third, fourth and record fifth MLS Cup titles while expanding its footprint across the region, but give it another year, and the Galaxy might not even be the biggest show in L.A., let alone MLS.

The first explicit salvos were launched last month when a Galaxy billboard was defaced with LAFC graffiti, and an LAFC mural outside the club's downtown offices was altered to “LA Galaxy.”

We're never going to be all things to everybody, but we do believe we can be an authentic L.A. representation of this sport in the heart of the city. And that's our distinction.

- Tom Penn

Los Angeles Football Club, which will debut in 2018 as MLS' 23rd team, fully intends to own the nation's second-largest market, and it’s already backing up that talk with action. There are billions of dollars backing the enterprise, a gorgeous stadium going up right next door to the Coliseum and a combination of perfect locale, appealing urban sensibility, and we-are-family approach to creating believers that could be a game-changer in laid-back L.A.

That's the aim, at least. Club president Tom Penn calls LAFC a “team of the future, a team that is new and next and forward in everything that we're doing,” and what he and his compatriots really seek to do is transform Los Angeles.

“We think that our sport is the one that can be the great unifier in a place like L.A.,” Penn said. “Because of the ethnic diversity, the folks from just all over the world, a common love affair [they share for] the sport. The question then is whether we can do it differently.

“We're never going to be all things to everybody, but we do believe we can be an authentic L.A. representation of this sport in the heart of the city. And that's our distinction.”

In the battle for hearts and minds of the Southland's soccer aficionados, the new kids might have the advantage.

Sing around the campfire

LAFC hasn't hired a coach, has just two players -- neither anything close to a household name -- and has little more than the skeleton of a stadium. But the club already has more than 16,000 season-ticket commitments, has sold out the full allotment of more than 3,000 premium seats, and has attracted more than a dozen supporters groups, with more coming aboard all the time.

There was an existing base to begin with, the fanaticos who followed Chivas USA, but the number of supporters swelled without the use of traditional advertising. The club utilized social media and word of mouth among a community of fans galvanized by an unexpected hands-on experience. The approach, mostly through an immersive “experience,” which includes a virtual tour of the team’s stadium, is less about selling and more about sharing.

“We don't feel like we're marketing at any people or targeting any specific thing,” Penn said. “We're more about just authentically representing our brand and delivering in our promise. And then we're very community-focused, in trying to create the local campfire that everyone wants to come gather around and arm-in-arm sing songs around. Sounds a little hokey, but it's true.”

I was convinced right off the bat. This was something special that's going to happen in L.A., and I knew I wanted to be part of it.

- Sal Reyes, Lucky Boys supporters’ group

LAFC fans are made to feel like they are part of the family. That’s a common refrain these days, but fans say it is really so. The supporters groups meet regularly with club brass and had a say in the club's colors, black and gold, and in the design of the supporters' north end in the $350 million, 22,000-seat Banc of California Stadium.

Sal Reyes, a leader of the Pasadena-based Lucky Boys, one of the club's six original supporters groups, couldn't believe at first what he was hearing.

“I was just invited to listen to their presentation, and I was really skeptical,” he said. “I was kind of like, 'Is this really true? Are you kidding me?' I was really impressed with the vision that they had. They asked us for our opinion, and that was the biggest thing, is they stayed in touch with those of us who had been around in the soccer world for awhile. They were reaching out and really making us feel welcome.

“I was convinced right off the bat. This was something special that's going to happen in L.A., and I knew I wanted to be part of it.”

The approach is ubiquitous. What would be called the marketing department is dubbed the “brand and community” department. Rich Orosco, executive vice president of brand and community, says the goal is to create a community as passionate as those that follow, say, the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Green Bay Packers, Borussia Dortmund. That’s a high bar, but it’s a window into the club’s ambitious approach.

“Nobody can question the power of their communities. Through thick and thin,” he said. “That's been our commitment from day one, and it's not the easiest way to do things, because it takes a lot of one-on-one conversation, but it's what we're committed to, and it's what we know will last.”

NEXT: The glamourous LA meets the 'authentic' LA