Save for a few isolated examples, when a soccer superstar came to America; they usually came to Los Angeles.
This started in earnest with David Beckham, who became the league’s first designated player in 2007, making Los Angeles Galaxy the global symbol of American club soccer for much of the past 16 years. Zlatan Ibrahimovic brought the world’s eyes back to Carson in 2018, launching the El Trafico rivalry with an upstart Los Angeles FC with a debut brace from the bench.
More arrivals in Los Angeles continued its status as the place to be for stars coming to MLS: Carlos Vela. Chicharito. Gareth Bale. It could even be a place for up-and-coming players to further develop – the opportunity to sign a player of Riqui Puig’s pedigree and age (he signed wit the Galaxy as a 22-year-old with experience in Spain’s youth teams and in the Champions League with Barcelona) was usually reserved for destination markets like Los Angeles and New York (which has its own record of stars including Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa). Even Douglas Costa, signed with a big reputation.
This trend could easily continue this summer: LAFC has a designated player slot is available, offering the prospect of a European star to play for the league champions while enjoying the best of one of the world’s most famous cities.
But with Messi on his way to Inter Miami, the July 4 edition of El Trafico felt simultaneously huge, with a league-record 82,110 turning out at the Rose Bowl, and somewhat small, overshadowed by the potential impact of Messi’s arrival.
In fairness to the LA clubs, the Messi situation was unique; he owned a home in Miami and had tight familial ties with the city. In 2018, two years before Miami’s first season in MLS and five years before eventually signing, Messi hinted that his future might lie in South Florida.
But now that he’s actually coming here, Miami could well establish itself as the pre-eminent football destination in the States, which could have a more profound effect on Los Angeles further down the line. At least in the near term, Messi will arrive in an MLS where both LA clubs are suffering despite lofty expectations at the start of the year.
As the reigning MLS Cup champion, LAFC started the season in inspired form which has tailed off considerably following a CONCACAF Champions League final defeat to Club Leon. To explain their plummet in form, head coach Steve Cherundolo has pointed to the fatigue caused to his players by their congested schedule. Through June, LAFC played eight games, winning only twice, and are now playing three times in seven days before pausing the league schedule ahead of their first Leagues Cup match later this month. The recent decline in productivity of star attackers Denis Bouanga and Vela has heightened pre-season concerns about the failure to replace last season’s top goalscorer Cristian ‘Chicho’ Arango.
Approximately 10 miles south, it was almost the opposite: Galaxy’s lofty aspirations were grounded as Greg Vanney’s side started the season without a win in their opening eight games. Galaxy will play the rest of the season without designated player and captain Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez thanks to an ACL injury. Out of contract at the end of the year, Hernandez has likely played his last game for the Galaxy.
In Tuesday’s edition of El Trafico, Puig, alongside forward partners Tyler Boyd and Douglas Costa, would inspire the blue, gold and white to their sixth league win against LAFC in 16 league meetings. Their 2-1 victory and the accompanying drama, excitement and sense of occasion created by the sell-out crowd reminded all that tuned in why Los Angeles has historically been the destination for European players.
Still, both clubs will face obstacles to improvement. The Galaxy’s issues are the most immediate, as the club faces sanctions for this season’s secondary transfer window due to undisclosed contract agreements made in 2019. The club would have been unable to close a deal for Messi even if they had made any headway. Highly-rated executive Will Kuntz was recruited as a free agent owing to his experience in the league office and as a key part in developing LAFC into a perennial contender to help get the club back on track, but the exact front office hierarchy, with Vanney occupying head coach and sporting director roles and Jovan Kirovski in place as technical director, is yet to be publicly communicated by the club following Chris Klein’s departure as president.
LAFC may be better off in that regard, but are also the MLS club (other than Miami) perhaps most affected by growing influence of Saudi Arabian clubs, which have recently tempted Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Roberto Firmino, among others, to sign for big paychecks. With a designated player slot available and a need to address their recent struggles in front of goal, there were not many players on the market this summer who would have better suited Cherundolo’s style of play than Firmino, the former Liverpool No. 9, who excels in tight areas and creating opportunities for wide forwards. The Brazilian striker left Anfield a legend, and at 31 years old, he still has much to contribute to a team with title aspirations. With the sheer amounts of money available to Saudi clubs, the trend of top players who might have opted for Los Angeles in years gone by choosing the Middle East is only likely to continue.
Still, if somebody needed to be convinced of the growing potential of Los Angeles as a soccer market, last week’s El Trafico ticked every box. These are clubs with talented players, die-hard fanbases with the potential to sell out every home game, tied together by a prime location and a derby match that continues to create fireworks.
Historically, this pitch has elevated these clubs over any other outside of Europe’s top five leagues. But with the emergence of Miami and Saudi Arabia, which plans to outlast similar projects like the Chinese Super League’s expansion a decade ago, are there early signs Los Angeles is losing its magic touch? Or is another club with the ability to contest the Los Angeles clubs what is needed to help MLS grow?
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