I have never seen anything like this. I’m at Dignity Health Sports Park in Los Angeles, home of MLS side/ franchise LA Galaxy. There’s a gleaming Toyota pick-up truck proudly mounted in one corner of the stadium, putting the red double decker at Hamilton’s New Douglas Park to shame. There’s a pair of artificial, larger-than-life eagle wings, seemingly an irresistible photo opportunity judging by the size of the queue of excited young fans, overlooking the playing surface. There’s a sign at the entrance to one section behind the goals that reads: ‘You are entering an LA Galaxy supporter section. Fans should be ready to enjoy standing, cheering and chanting for 90 minutes. Please see a guest services representative with any questions or concerns.’ There’s a security guard flossing vigorously. I don’t think we’re at Hibs away anymore, Toto.
A Hollywood side
LA Galaxy are the most successful side in MLS history. They have won the MLS Cup five times and lifted the CONCACAF Champions League in 2001. Their blockbuster signing of David Beckham in 2007 proved to be the catalyst for a wave of high-profile Transatlantic transfers that has included Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos and, most recently, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Formed in 1994, they are, quite literally, a Hollywood side.
Their opponents this evening are New England Revolution, a side lingering near the bottom of the table after an ill-fated spell in charge for former Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Friedel has however been relieved of his duties in recent weeks following a humiliating 5-0 defeat against Chicago Fire. New coach Bruce Arena, who himself spent 8 years in the dugout at LA Galaxy, has made a solid start and introduced a previously elusive defensive stability. As such, tonight’s encounter promises to be a lot closer than it perhaps might have been had Friedel still been at the helm.
National anthems and baseball caps
The two teams emerge to an array of colourful fireworks and flags and banner. Rayvon Owen, a proud supporter of the LGBTQ community, performs the national anthem and it is absolutely beautiful. The racist homophobe in Row K physically recoils, no doubt cursing a certain Donald Trump’s failure to Make This Part Of America Great Again.
The national anthem finishes. The camera beaming images onto the two giant screens at either end of the ground pans in on a trio of frat boys in a hospitality box each wearing identical baseball caps. The one on the left looks like a Brad, the one on the right is most likely a Tristan and the one in the middle is a stonewall Brock. They do some sort of synchronised, chilling gesture to the camera. Slightly traumatised, I flick through the match day programme and note that it has a detailed, two-page map of the various food stalls on offer throughout the stadium. Of course it bloody does. Marvellous.
Carles Gil, the Spanish wizard
LA Galaxy start the game shooting to our right with New England Revolution shooting to our left. Zlatan Ibrahimovic struts about in a typically obnoxious manner: he knows he is a class above and does nothing to hide his relentless arrogance. The pitch is his red carpet and he’s the A-List superstar out for one last starring role.
After 24 minutes, Ibrahimovic picks up his customary booking for a flailing elbow. The dad in front of me proclaims that if Zlatan picks up another booking, the whole family are leaving as he is the only player here worth watching. Nobody protests. It soon becomes clear, however, that the Swedish striker will not have centre stage all to himself tonight. New England captain Carles Gil, once of Aston Villa and Espanyol, is growing more and more into the game and is starting to enjoy himself. He’s spraying the ball about beautifully and taking out two, three, four players at a time with cute touches and delightful passes and gravity-defying swivels. He’s at the heart of everything the away side are doing.
With half-time approaching, Gil works his magic once again and unlocks the LA Galaxy defence with a deliciously weighted ball through to Ecuadorian winger Cristian Penilla. Penilla wanders into the box unopposed from the left hand side and drills a low effort which squirms embarrassingly under LA Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham before trundling over the line. 1-0 to the visitors.
The referee blows his whistle for half-time with the Galaxy trailing 1-0. Lil Nas’ seemingly omnipresent Old Town Road blasts out of the supersized speakers and reverberates around the stadium. What follows is utterly haunting. Every fan in the ground under the age of 10 starts dancing like some sort of cowboy, screaming the words back verbatim and waving an imaginary lasso above their head. It’s like a horrifying, mass exorcism. The kids are in a hypnotic trance and, somewhere in the ground, an inspired Charlie Brooker is scribbling in his notebook as he speed dials Black Mirror co-producer Annabel Jones with a fresh, twisted idea for Season 6.
Once the unnerving ritual has finished, the corporate fun begins. There’s a mass twenty-a-side game at one end of the pitch sponsored by what appears to be an insurance company. There’s a race from the half way line seemingly promoting a juice brand. There’s a target game apparently brought to us by a health care provider. It’s an overwhelming, capitalist smorgasbord of half-time entertainment. Normality is thankfully restored as the players make their way back out on to the pitch for the second half.
New England Revolution start the second period strongly and should really double their lead in the 52nd minute. Gil drives forward through the middle and exchanges passes with Penilla. Collecting the ball inside the box, the Spanish wizard twists and turns and twists again, leaving a bewildered Jonathan dos Santos’ anterior cruciate ligament in tatters. He has an age to line up his shot from twelve yards and yet somehow contrives to hit the post.
Less than ten minutes later, the away side do double their lead. Norwegian left-back Jörgen Skjelvik loses the ball cheaply out on the wing to the ubiquitous Gil. The captain scampers forward with the ball, floating effortlessly through an absent defence before guiding a carefully weighted through ball to Teal Bunbury. The 29-year-old forward takes a moment or three to steady himself and cooly slots past the Galaxy keeper. In a fit of quintessentially American rage, the girl behind me shrieks “Are you kidding me?!” No, there’s no tomfoolery at play here: your team’s defence is utterly non-existent and your manager appears to be tactically inept.
The considerable lack of tactical and positional awareness is however lending itself to a free-flowing, relentlessly-paced encounter. A stampede of bodies rushes forward. Somebody gives the ball away. The stampede rushes back to defend. Repeat. It’s more like a game of basketball, or the sort of frantic, hole-in-the-knee-of-your-trousers kick-about you would have in the playground with your mates as a youngster at primary school, than a top flight football match. It’s pulsating to watch.
A touch of emphatic class
With 83 minutes played, LA Galaxy need a goal soon if they are to have any chance of salvaging something from the game. They have a throw-in deep in the New England Revolution half, out on the right hand side. Channeling his inner Rory Delap, full-back Daniel Steres hurls the ball into the area. Chris Pontius flicks it on hopefully. Joe Corona gets something on it as well. The ball bounces awkwardly towards Ibrahimovic, the master of the spectacular, with his back to goal. What happens next is Ibrahimovic at his exquisite and flamboyant best. His first touch with his chest brings it under control. His second touch with his right foot tees the Swede up invitingly. His third touch is an emphatic overhead kick that flies past New England ‘keeper Brad Knighton and almost rips the net in two. It is utterly brilliant, majestic, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring talent. The dad in front of me mouths ‘I told you so’ to his kids with an Alan Shearer-esque smugness.
The Galaxy continue to put pressure on the away side. Five minutes of additional time are indicated. New England Revolution are sitting deeper and deeper. The Galaxy get a free-kick. Zlatan lines it up. The ground draws a collective breath. Zlatan blasts it anti-climactically into the wall. The dad in front of me suddenly doesn’t look so smug.
Carles Gil is urging his team-mates to keep their cool. But they’re exhausted and look like they might buckle under the onslaught. We’re now in the 96th minute. The ball is launched deep into the box. One last proverbial roll of the dice. Jonathan dos Santos knocks the ball back across the goal dangerously but Andrew Farrell reads the danger well and heads the ball clear temporarily. A fluffed clearance from Brandon Bye falls to Uruguayan centre-back Diego Polenta on the left-hand side of the 18-yard line. He hits it perfectly on the volley with his left foot: the connection is crisp and perfect and unbelievably satisfying to watch. Knighton is rooted to the spot as the ball soars over him and looks destined for the top right-hand corner. But instead it crashes cruelly off the bar and New England manage to scramble the ball clear. The referee blows for full-time. Quel match.
Full time: LA Galaxy 1 – 2 New England Revolution
Man of the Match: Carles Gil
‘Fight and win’
I was admittedly sceptical ahead of my visit to Dignity Health Sports Park this evening. I had watched too many videos on YouTube and Facebook of MLS fans belting out cringe-worthy chants to not be. I had watched images of a crowd singing something incoherent about eating BBQ and scoring “three more goals than you”. I had watched a clip of a deranged Seattle Sounders supporter, masquerading as an ultra, begging his team to ‘fight and win’. Perhaps most worryingly, I had watched footage of Orlando City fans slating New York City FC supporters about the Bronx-based team’s lack of history – Orlando City themselves were only founded in 2013. LA Galaxy fans at least seemed to have avoided any such behaviour, but the ‘chanting and cheering’ sign I had clocked on the way in, coupled with the flossing security guard, had done little to allay any fears I had.
And yet, for want of a better cliché, they always say that you should never judge a book by its cover. In the same respect, you should probably never judge a nation’s football by its population’s tendency to refer to the beautiful game as ‘soccer’ or by a few compilations on YouTube. Football in America has a lot to offer – provided that you don’t take it too seriously. Based on my visit to the home of LA Galaxy, there is considerable emphasis in the MLS on the spectator experience: what with the meticulously organised car park right next to the ground, the micro-detail of the food stalls map and the endless opportunities for supporters to win prizes.
The fans at Dignity Health Sports Park were predominantly light-hearted and having fun: the ultras behind the goal to our right made for an enjoyable atmosphere. The football itself was free-flowing and far more entertaining than plenty of other games I have been to. The apparent disregard for the art of defending was infuriating on the one hand but made for a quite breathtaking spectacle on the other. Throw in an ageless Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a delightfully unshackled Carles Gil and a referee clearly happy to allow the game to flow and you have a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes of football.
A political platform
Football is also providing an increasingly important platform politically in the States. In what is fast becoming a dangerous age of oppression for minority groups under the Trump administration, the welcoming atmosphere and events at tonight’s game were encouraging. The inclusive performance of the national anthem was spine-tinglingly symbolic. The multicoloured goal nets were a nice touch. The speed with which a racist and homophobic spectator was confronted and brought down by a fellow fan in the second half was commendable. The extensive airtime afforded to a local LGBTQ charity on the big screens at either end of the ground was welcoming. From what I gathered tonight, LA Galaxy are an open and inclusive club making all the right noises.
A few weeks from now, USA midfielder Megan Rapinoe will use her position as one of the most influential players in football to publicly criticise the Trump administration and reaffirm her position that she would refuse to visit the White House in the event that the American national team, for whom she plays such a vital role, were to win the Women’s World Cup. The defiance displayed by Rapinoe in challenging sexism, homophobia and the establishment itself is, for many, a beacon of hope at a gloomy time. If the price that football in America has to pay to be able to provide that platform is a few corporate games at half-time, a sprinkling of harmlessly tame supporters and franchises younger than controversial English side MK Dons, then so bloody be it.