LAFC's downtown stadium sets new marker for MLS expansion teams
Every Major League Soccer expansion team since 2007 has checked off a varying number of key boxes. The most successful have added to the to-do list, raising the bar for each ensuing new franchise.
Toronto and Seattle both set the general framework: Plop your stadium as close to the city center as possible, encourage a vibrant supporter culture and prioritize attracting urban millennials over suburban families.
Orlando City followed this model to make an immediate splash in a market most had serious doubts about; New York City FC contributed the combined financial might of the Yankees and Manchester City. Atlanta took things even further, building a state-of-the-art training ground and dropping unprecedented transfer fees while compiling a loaded roster. LAFC has come as close as any to ticking off every box.
Like NYCFC, it has an ownership group with deep pockets featuring big names as varied as Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm. Like Atlanta, it has targeted in-their-prime impact signings who could contribute more on the field than in a marketing sense, and also invested tens of millions of dollars in its practice facility.
LAFC's own fresh contribution to the blueprint will be revealed on Sunday night against the Sounders, a nationally televised showdown that will double as the grand opening of Banc of California Stadium.
Most MLS stadiums are an either/or proposition: They are either downtown and shared with another tenant, or soccer-only and out in suburbia. Seattle and Atlanta both do a good job of individualizing their respective buildings for home matches, but there's only so much they can do when splitting time with NFL teams.
Banc of California Stadium is close to unique in that it is soccer-specific and within sight range of downtown skyscrapers.
"It seems like LAFC, and Minnesota is getting a new stadium, and the New York Red Bulls, it's like their own place," Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said this week. "The fans, the players, the people from the organization, they can really feel like it's really their own home, while we still share it."
Benny Feilhaber would not have been happy to have been traded to your average expansion team. Having spent the past five seasons as the primary playmaker on an annual playoff contender in Sporting Kansas City, he was not especially keen on having to start from scratch. From the day he was traded to LAFC, though, the SoCal native has been impressed with the scale and scope of the club's vision.
"There is a different approach to how to build a club over the last few years," Feilhaber said. "There are some things that are unique, but there are similarities to what some other teams have done. You kind of take what you can from other team's successes in the past and kind of make it your own, as well.
"We're trying to build something that people want to be a part of and want to be professional about."
Feilhaber was especially won by how the roster was coming together. This isn't Bob Bradley's first rodeo, having coached the Chicago Fire to MLS Cup in its expansion season back in 1998. General manager John Thorrington built patiently and with a specific vision, targeting a mix of gifted creators like Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi as well as proven MLS veterans such as Feilhaber and defender Laurent Ciman.
"That was one huge thing," Feilhaber said. "Once I was here, I became over the moon in terms of how the team was being built. That's always a worry, coming to an expansion team, that the first year, it's going to be a slow start.
"I'm at 33 right now. I want to win championships. I don't have a few years to grind it out. We're building something that can be really successful even in year one."
Though a 4-3 loss to the crosstown rival Galaxy -- featuring two late goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the LA comeback -- was a high-profile setback, LAFC has otherwise started the season as well as could be expected. Starting the year with six straight road matches, it has won four of them. Heading into the weekend, it sits in second place in the Western Conference, and with a backlog of home games, it could really take off from here.
Atlanta put down a marker last season when it netted 70 goals en route to a top-four seed in the loaded Eastern Conference. Following in the tradition of MLS expansion teams continuing to raise the bar, LAFC -- and every other newcomer to follow -- will take aim and attempt to improve upon that mark further.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.