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LA Galaxy Opening Game

April 13th, 1996 – What a Night!

I cannot explain how or why I was so nervous for the LA Galaxy Opening Game 1996. Why had this game become the be-all end-all of games. I don’t know why my entire life had become consumed by this. Los Angeles was my home. Soccer was my sport. In the 1970’s, my mom’s friends started one of the first soccer stores in Los Angeles, Soccer World. The first adult soccer game I had been to was the LA Skyhawks, now defunct. As a kid, each week at school, I could think of nothing but going to the next Aztec game at the Rose Bowl. I welcomed legendary coach Rinus Michel and total football. I was mesmerized to see the world’s best, Johann Cruyff, score 2 amazing goals in his first game, and was star-struck by the coolness of George Best.

However, as quickly as soccer and the NASL rose in the late 70’s, the sport of soccer in America collapsed just as quickly in the early 80’s. I was 16, loving soccer, wanting to be a pro, and then ‘poof’… it was all gone.

It wasn’t until the 1994 World cup and the birth of Major League Soccer in 1996 that I really thought a new league might happen. I was now too old to play, but maybe my kids might one day. I knew that soccer was still “young” in this country, and I guess I was just worried that if it fails this time, then it would never happen.

Preparing for Opening Day at the Rose Bowl

So I hoped the Galaxy staff had prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Each day, I would drive home past the Rose Bowl to see if any progress was made on the stadium. I had heard concerns of how many would attend the game, but ticket sales seemed to be selling pretty well. To support the league, I bought season tickets with a couple of friends, and I did what I could to convince others to go this opening game. There was no social media back then.

In case the attendance was low, the Galaxy staff put up these huge colorful tarps to cover the upper sections of the Rose Bowl so the 100,000 person stadium would not look empty if only 20,000 showed up.

With high hopes, we arrived early to make sure we did not get caught in traffic, as the Rose Bowl, as historic and beautiful as it is, is one of the worst stadiums to get to in the country. I can remember darkness starting to fall, and as I looked back away from the Rose Bowl tunnels, I could see a steady stream of cars and headlights inching their way towards the stadium followed by people…not just any people, but soccer fans. Not just a few soccer fans, but thousands of soccer fans walking to watch an unknown team in an uncertain league. The fans were people of all nationalities. They were carrying flags from the US, Mexico and El Salvador, and wearing soccer jerseys from all over. I had goosebumps. What were they thinking? Were they as excited yet nervous as I was?

The Game Begins and the Tarps Come Off

‘The game started at 7:30 pm. Our seats were at the half-way line about 20 rows up. Perfect viewing. With the tarps in place, the stadium was set up for an attendance of 28,000. Although not yet filled up by kickoff, people kept coming in. Large decorative soccer balloons dotted the aisles and the field boundary. There was a bit of a hokey pre-game celebration and I have to admit I had tears during the national anthem. After all, this was not just a game. It was a movement.

The game started at 7:30 pm. Our seats were at the half-way line about 20 rows up. Perfect viewing. With the tarps in place, the stadium was set up for an attendance of 28,000. Although not yet filled up by kickoff, people kept coming in. Large decorative soccer balloons dotted the aisles and the field boundary. There was a bit of a hokey pre-game celebration and I have to admit I had tears during the national anthem. After all, this was not just a game. It was a movement.

After about 10 minutes of a fans piling into the stadium, the ushers pulled off the first layer of tarps in the upper section, The crowd cheered. I was ecstatic. Homemade signs were everywhere. Soccer: welcome back. Welcome MLS and LA Galaxy. Viva Campos! I remember not knowing exactly what a huge sign with both “100 fires” and “cienfuegos” meant, but soon, Mauricio Cienfuegos, a national team hero from El Salvador, would become my favorite Galaxy player and one of the best MLS midfielders of all time. The Galaxy has never had a playmaker like him since.

In another 10 minutes, staff pulled off another tarp off . The crowd cheered again as more fans would fill the empty seat in seconds. It was clear that the fans agreed with me that this was a magical moment in US soccer history. I truly believed the future of soccer was bright.

Eventually, the Galaxy stopped selling tickets at about 70,000 and they had to turn away 30,000 fans. The day-of-game sales were 35,000 a record walk-up sale in Southern California. The official attendance was 69,255. Wow.

The LA Galaxy opening game was everything I could have dreamed for. The crowd was amazing. The fans were loud and passionate. These were not just typical American sports fans, but real soccer fans who knew when to cheer, when to jeer, when to sit, and when to stand. The Galaxy won 2-1, with hometown hero Cobi Jones scoring the Galaxy’s first ever goal.

This first game began a tradition of 25 straight seasons that I attended a home opener of the LA Galaxy, until Covid stopped my streak cold in 2020. But it wasn’t only Covid pandemic, as my disillusionment with the MLS single-entity system and growing knowledge of soccer pyramids worked in other countries had already altered how I viewed the MLS and US soccer.

Pele!

Throughout my soccer life, and even when I played as a kid, it seemed like we were always fighting to find soccer fields to play on. Even the professional team, the LA Galaxy, was hindered as it had to rent its field at the massive Rose Bowl. Most of the game profits went back to the city of Pasadena, not the Galaxy. In the MLS’s early years, a major focus of MLS was to build their own soccer specific stadiums. It took eight years at the fabled Rose Bowl before the Galaxy finally had their own soccer stadium, the Home Depot Center. This was another wonderful moment in my soccer life was watching the unveiling of the top soccer stadium in the nation by Pele. Yes Pele!

Twenty years earlier, Pele had taken the nation by storm by signing with the NY Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Many soccer fans thought this was the beginning of US dominance in world  soccer. It was not to be. After less than a decade of a financially mismanaged league, poor spending habits, and marketing to the wrong audience, the NASL collapsed in 1983 leaving a huge void in American soccer. It took 13 years, a World Cup and a promise of a professional league that brought about Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996.  

In the early MLS years, all the teams played in massive stadiums built for American football. The Columbus Crew had the first soccer-specific stadium for MLS. However, it was the new LA Galaxy stadium, built in 2003, that turned heads across the country. This was yet another soccer milestone that would put soccer on the forefront of the American sports scene.  The stadium was jam-packed with real soccer fans holding their breath to catch a glimpse of Pele at this Home Depot Centers’ inaugural game. We all hoped this new stadium would be that final boost to push soccer over the top. The field was perfect with manicure grass. I can vividly remember the width of the field as the Galaxy has been constrained by the narrowness of the Rose Bowl. Like many soccer fields across the nation, was built for American football, not soccer.  Times had changed.

I have goose bumps thinking of the thunderous noise of fans pounding their feet on the metal floor and chanting and cheering the Galaxy on. It brought back fond memories of my first professional soccer games cheering on the LA Aztecs. The players were my heroes.  To see George Best, Johann Cruyff, and other world stars up close was a dream come true.  Even back in the 1980’s, the crowds often reached 20,000, which was impressive for a soccer game. It was obvious that there was a passionate soccer following in Southern California. However, if you were not in the soccer world, you would never know soccer existed at all.

The Move to the Home Depot Center in Carson

Fast forward to the 2003 LA Galaxy opening game at the Home Depot Center. Whereas 30,000 fans in the Rose Bowl seemed empty, the same amount of fans was overwhelming. Once again, I iimagined this outpouring of support for the Galaxy as a prediction of the future of soccer in America. 

Further from my home and not as historic as the Rose Bowl,  I soon made the Home Depot my soccer haven, and attended as many games as I could muster.  I made sure to attend every opening day LA Galaxy game from 1996 through 2020. It took a word-wide pandemic to end my streak.

And during this time, I began to learn more about the contradictions and problem with the US closed soccer system, and what promotion and relegation really meant.

Much More to Come