LAFC forward Cristian Arango celebrates after scoring on Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond during a 2022 match. The teams are set to face off at the Rose Bowl. The Fourth of July edition of El Tráfico is expected to set an MLS attendance record. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
When a massive storm blew through Southern California last February, MLS determined it wasn’t safe to play the season-opening game between the Galaxy and LAFC at the Rose Bowl. But Tom Braun quickly discovered there was a silver lining ringing those dark, black rain clouds.
As the Galaxy’s senior vice president for soccer and business operations, it was Braun’s job to find an alternate date for the game in the most crowded MLS schedule in history. And less than two hours after the Galaxy announced the postponement, Braun had it: the game would be played on the Fourth of July.
LAFC wasn’t busy that day. St. Louis City, an MLS expansion team scheduled to play the Galaxy that night, agreed to move its game to September. And not only was the Rose Bowl available, but the city of Pasadena allowed the Galaxy to stage their traditional fireworks show at the stadium as well.
“There might have been two total dates that were an option for us to host this game,” Braun said. “And it just so happens that the Fourth of July was one of them. So it came together fast.”
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Which is how Braun turned February’s rain into the Galaxy’s gain because the team has already distributed enough tickets — more than 85,000 as of Monday morning — to assure Tuesday’s game will have the largest announced regular-season attendance in MLS history, topping the 74,479 that showed up to watch the Galaxy beat Charlotte last season. The Galaxy were also the visiting team before the second-largest crowd for an MLS regular-season game — the 72,548 that watched them lose to Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in August 2019.
Now they’re breaking both those records in their return to the Rose Bowl, where the team played during its first seven seasons in MLS. The team and stadium staff are urging fans to arrive early since the crowd will also be the second largest for a soccer game in the U.S. since 2018. The largest? The 93,702 that jammed the Rose Bowl last summer to watch Real Madrid beat Juventus.
You know who put that game together?
Tuesday’s game will be a bit more challenging than last summer’s match though because it’s not a friendly between two European teams essentially in town on vacation. It’s a league game between two bitter rivals, the most intense derby in MLS, and one that has somehow remained at a fever pitch despite the fact the two neighbors will face off at least four times this year.
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And they come into this 20th renewal of El Tráfico, as the rivalry is known, heading in different directions. LAFC (9-5-5), the reigning MLS champion, is tied for second in the Western Conference while the injury-riddled Galaxy (3-9-7) are second-to-last in the 29-team MLS table and are missing their top three center backs to injury and international duty as well as their leading scorer the last two seasons in captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. However the Galaxy are riding a five-game unbeaten streak in MLS play while LAFC has lost two in a row and four of its last six.
So with the fortunes of the two teams so disconnected, squeezing their supporters into the same stadium, even a sprawling one with more than 93,000 seats, required care and planning.
“There’s going to be really strong representation from both sides,” said Braun, who has divided the stadium in half with one side for Galaxy supporters and the other for LAFC fans. “I do think it sets a different standard for our league, being able to pull something like this off.”
The idea for the Rose Bowl game, the one originally scheduled for February, came together last fall when the unbalanced MLS schedule once again had the Galaxy and LAFC playing each other three times during the regular season in both the 2023 and 2024 seasons. One game would be played at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, the Galaxy’s home, and the other at BMO Stadium in Exposition Park, LAFC’s home.
For the third game, the Galaxy could choose a different site this year and LAFC would get to pick in 2024.
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The Galaxy chose the iconic Rose Bowl, where both the team and MLS sprang into existence in 1996 before 69,255 fans, at the time the largest crowd for a non-Olympic or World Cup soccer match in Southern California. LAFC hasn’t announced where that third game will be played next season but the Coliseum, which shares several parking lots and a landlord with BMO Stadium, appears to be the front-runner.
The Rose Bowl isn’t done with soccer for the summer, though, with Real Madrid returning to the Arroyo Seco on July 23 to play AC Milan in a matchup of UEFA Champions League semifinalists. That’s just one of three games on the Soccer Champions Tour that Braun is bringing to Southern California, with Barcelona facing Arsenal on July 26 at SoFi Stadium and Juventus meeting AC Milan at Dignity Health Sports Park the next night.
Add in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final on July 16 at SoFi Stadium, Wrexham FC’s July 22 exhibition in Carson, six games involving the two MLS teams and two Angel City games and there will be at least 13 top-flight soccer games played between Inglewood and Pasadena over the next three weeks. What’s not expanding, however, is the attention span and disposable income of the average soccer fan in Southern California. So might the plethora of games make crowds of 90,000-plus even more rare in the future?
“We’re going to find out,” Braun said. “It’s a very strong market, that’s been proven. It’s certainly a lot of soccer but there’s definitely demand in the market.”
As long as it doesn’t rain.
⚽ You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.