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For better or worse, El Trafico is very real

Carlos A Torres

A few weeks ago during LAFC’s resounding victory over the Portland Timbers, the supporters union known as the 3252 erupted in a spirited version of “Jump for LA Football Club”.

Pundits and a number of LA based personalities marveled at the display. Galaxy fans were decidedly less impressed. Outside Banc of California Stadium a different kind of fight was taking place.

This is the never-ending, all-consuming and always petty world of El Trafico, the rivalry on and off the field between two clubs fighting for superiority of a vast region while struggling to address the skeletons in their own closets.

Truth be told, everyone’s bullshitting themselves a bit. Galaxy fans might not like the attention their neighbors are receiving, but the league needs to market itself and why wouldn’t you talk about LA’s newest expansion club? Even if some of the praise sounds canned.

The chant is a fantastic spectacle, but in typical fashion of a club all too aware of their image LAFC hash tagged the routine, because of course they did. Don’t let an overzealous Twitter moment fool you though: The rivalry is very much a real thing.

There’s a symmetry to fan loyalties that even runs along celebrity lines, with longtime area icons supporting the blue white and gold while newer residents identify with the shiny expansion club. LeBron James’ kids proudly sport black and gold jerseys, over in Long Beach Snoop Dogg is busy lecturing Mario Lopez. Hollywood personalities are likely to show up in LAFC promos while Dave Grohl and his family roam the DHSP stands unannounced.

Everything from pre-season attendance numbers to beer prices are compared and contrasted with glee. Despite LA’s 503 miles of square footage rendering a debate on stadium locations within close proximity a moot point, the cities are discussed ad nauseam: LA is Carson, Los Angeles is South LA. Restaurants repping team gear are celebrated in some parts and revered in others. Even journalists are now caught in the crossfire, increasingly pressured by fans on social media not to favor one team over another.

For the players and staff the suffering might even be worse. You can see it in the eyes of LAFC boss Bob Bradley as he opines about the phrase he doesn’t remember but despises with every fibre of his being.

Perhaps most importantly, none of these things are influenced by executives in Midtown Manhattan.

Sticking another club within the city limits has obviously paid off, elevating the profiles of both clubs and the league. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s debut during the first El Trafico was one for the ages, a gift from the soccer gods that will never be replicated. Though MLS remains underrepresented in LA’s saturated media market, the matchup has captured the imagination of millennials and Gen X’s. The Times’ Arash Markazi has no qualms about it: El Trafico is the top sports rivalry in Los Angeles.

Not everything has gone to plan.

If the concrete walkway in the above clip looks familiar, it’s the same location on the north side of the stadium where the fight after the Timbers match took place. Discouragingly the circumstances appear similar as well, with a mob of aggressive fans attacking individuals and an insufficient response from the authority figures. (It must be said, the security detail who failed to intervene did a disgraceful job)

The individual responsible was eventually reprimanded by the club, but visiting fans shouldn’t have to fear confrontations from chest-thumping randos.

LA Galaxy billboard outside Banc of California Stadium

Far from an isolated manner or two, the above fights are typical of a series of incidents marring LAFC’s home grounds.

There’s the abuse of that widely condemned homophobic chant, which originally put a damper on the grand opening of the Banc before making an ugly resurgence during LAFC’s playoff loss to Real Salt Lake: The match was stopped multiple times due to fans pelting Nick Rimando with ice and other debris.

“LAFC knocked out in loss marred by anti-gay chants and hooligan fan behavior” was the local CBS affiliate headline, who also reported more fighting outside the stadium and 10 ejections. The club has banned the phrase for the 2019 season, whether it will resurface remains to be seen.

Carlos Vela the day after El Trafico I
Sportscenter en español‏

There’s the El Trafico matches themselves, featuring clashes from both sets of supporters. That being said, from talking to reporters and neutral fans of the club who traveled to both venues, a common consensus emerged: Dignity Health Sports Park was the safer venue.

We’re big fans of Banc of California Stadium. We sung its praises last season.

It’s not the most comfortable venue. Like a pair of overly tight skinny jeans, there are spots where the architects at Gansler chose looks over functionality. There’s the roof that doesn’t work, which is admittedly more funny than sad, but the snug seats and narrow concourses only add to the intimacy of the venue. Good for atmosphere, bad for a crowd of heated rivals full of liquid courage.

As someone who covered El Trafico II from the ground level, I can tell you right now. It was a f***ing zoo.

The Times reported 6 arrests and 14 ejections that night, a number paling in comparison to the many skirmishes, yelling matches and other mayhem unfolding around the stadium. Security had been doubled that night but to no avail.

At this point, we felt compelled to ask: Who are the people responsible for all this riff-raff?

What is an LAFC fan?

You have the Chivas USA supporters, the grizzled clan of die-hards who closely followed the now defunct original iteration of Los Angeles Football Club. Galaxy fans poke fun at their former rivals who prefer not to discuss the past, but these Angelenos were loyal supporters who behaved themselves.

Here lies the paradox: It’s not like the city had a large audience of mad soccer fans starved for MLS action when LAFC kicked off last year. They already had a team to support. And not just any team, the five-time MLS Cup Champion LA Galaxy. What this inevitably means is you have a different crowd of people showing up to the Banc.

There are the newcomers, the folks who look like they were on their way to LACMA and got lost. Lower down the totem pole are the footie hipsters who Columbused MLS. Mixed in are transplants, downtown professionals and casual soccer fans.

The point is, there are a significant number of attendees who might not be up date on what’s going on in the league. People who might not be familiar with soccer at all. Once you accept this, you can start to grasp how someone would pour an entire beer on striker Adama Diomande after scoring a stoppage-time winner.

As much as LAFC have achieved the past few years, the growing pains the organization are dealing with policing fan behavior at the Banc are a serious concern. Hopefully the venue will continue to work with the club and supporters until the issues are sorted: In lightning speed the rivalry has become a fully-realized thing.

El Trafico is fun, and it needs to stay that way. As we’ve amply demonstrated however, not everyone seems to get that yet.

In early May, not long after originally publishing this piece, fans from both teams gathered at a warehouse in Lincoln Heights to watch LA Galaxy and LAFC staff battle in The Association, an exclusive Adidas soccer league featuring the likes of Tesla.

From what we could gather from witnesses on both sides of the aisle, the event was rowdy but a fun cordial time. At some point a group of LAFC supporters with flares in tow arrived, then the proceedings took a dark turn. A Galaxy fan had his flag stolen in plain view and a riot broke out. Punches were thrown, possessions were stolen, kids were frightened. Outside the warehouse the same troublemakers had lit flares, celebrating. It was a total disgrace.

The organizers thought so: Both teams were swiftly dismissed from the league.

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