The MLS has been an experimental league since its inception. While whispers and articles about Americans’ growing interest in football (or there, soccer) have been around for decades now, it was at best the fifth favourite sport when the MLS first started.
In fact, it remained so until recently. In the past few years though, there is actually growing evidence that enthusiasm for football is increasing in the United States. It has arguably surpassed hockey and the NHL in popularity; record numbers of Americans are watching European leagues; and data clearly indicates that football dominates among youth sports. None of this means, as some Americans would like to infer, that the MLS is on its way to being EPL quality, nor that the U.S. is going to win a World Cup anytime soon. But it does mean that the door is open for advancement.
And that’s where LAFC comes in. Founded in 2014, this second football club in the city of Los Angeles, California is making strides toward a type of popularity and a level of prestige that is until now largely foreign to U.S. football. It could be an outlier in this sense, but it could also be the perfect team at the perfect time to set the tone for a new (and better) era of American football.
For one thing, the team became competitive almost immediately, which isn’t typically the case with expansion teams in major sports leagues. Despite having been announced and in some sense officially created back in 2014, it took until the current season (which wraps up this month) for LAFC to begin playing matches. The team debuted back in March of 2018 with a win in Seattle against the Seattle Sounders – arguably the most famous and beloved team in the MLS. And as of this writing, LAFC sits at third in the Western Conference, with a high likelihood of making the MLS Playoffs.
Whether because of the winning or simply a strong effort to create a team culture, LAFC has also burst into the league with a tremendous atmosphere. In the MLS, despite the fact that there is no history to match, say, the Premier League, home field advantage can count for a lot in the right places, with Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City generally well-regarded in this area. Almost immediately, however, the brand new Band Of California Stadium – made specifically for the club – became one of the top venues in the league. Passionate home fans and an intimate, raucous vibe have created an unusually strong soccer experience, and proponents of U.S. soccer hope that it’s merely the beginning of things to come.
And then, amazingly, in the middle of it all, there’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The enigmatic Swedish star who was one of the best strikers in Europe just a few years ago has decided to play out his days in Los Angeles, and he’s already near the top of the MLS in scoring, giving the most exciting new team the most exciting old star. Furthermore, in typical fashion, Ibrahimovic has been outspoken about the quality of the league he’s in, vocally pushing for change and improvement. He may be abrasive to some, but there’s also an argument to be made that he’s exactly what American soccer needed – a European star who still has talent who could conceivably elevate the entire league to a higher place on the world stage.
For now, it’s beginning to seem like the sky’s the limit for LAFC, and while the MLS still has a long way to go, it has to start rising at some point if it’s ever going to. We may well be at that point thanks to this unusual, thrilling expansion team.