By Ridge Mahoney
The next expansion team in Los Angeles won’t play a real game for three more years, and yet already it is infused with anticlimax, not to mention redundancy.
Los Angeles Football Club, or LAFC, has been promoted from "placeholder" name to the real thing. The official announcement came Tuesday and didn’t carry much pop, as is always the case when the public is told what it more or less already knew. The same was true in May, when a search for a stadium site ended when the site on which currently stands the Los Angeles Sports Arena was confirmed as the location of a 22,000-capacity facility.
News that isn’t really news isn’t the fault of the team, but it’s disturbing that a powerful, ambitious ownership group that will be going head-to-head with the Galaxy -- not to mention the Dodgers, Kings, Lakers, USC and UCLA – has followed in the path of so many teams by dubbing itself “FC”.
Does MLS need another FC, or "United," for that matter. No, not really. But surely there are some thinkers in team and league offices who believe that seeing a bunch of FC’s in the standings -- FC Dallas, Toronto FC, etc. -- brings credibility to the league. (They may or may not know that Liverpool is officially known as Liverpool FC, and Chelsea is really Chelsea FC, but those tags are seldom used. Of course, also seldom used are nicknames, which for these clubs are the very unimaginative “Reds” and ‘Blues,” respectively.)
Not every team can have both a great name such as Tottenham Hotspur FC, and a cool nickname: "Spurs." Orlando City SC deviated somewhat by using SC for “soccer club” instead of FC (“football club”), plus it retained “Lions” as its nickname when it stepped up from USL to MLS for the 2015 season. Timbers fans chant "PT! FC! PT! FC!" -- along with many other things -- so there are ways to mix and match the best of both worlds.
I find it absurd that Major League Soccer has a bunch of football clubs, but there’s no doubt that a movement fueled by ESPN -- which renamed its soccer site espnfc.com years ago -- has taken root. And considering the league was borne of teams dubbed Clash, Burn, Mutiny and Wiz, improvement has to be acknowledged even if the trend is becoming tiresome.
But with all the supposed marketing might at its disposal, the brain trust of LAFC couldn’t come up with something edgy enough and clever enough to tag onto LAFC? LAFC? That’s it? Like New York City FC, only on the opposite coast? That team is owned by the same group that runs Manchester City FC, and wears the same colors, so its name makes sense. Yet there’s also a sense that rather than force a contrived nickname onto its fan base, LAFC has taken a route that has resonated with at least a portion of fans bases in other cities.
Still, I read with astonishment a quote from Rich Orosco, the head of marketing for culture and community. “Our opportunity in L.A. is how do we tell the story differently,” he said in a statement released on Tuesday regarding the team name. “We're going to be big into music, art and fashion. The design aesthetic. We're going to be a great outlet for creativity. It's one of our club pillars.”
The very fact that a professional soccer team needs a “head of marketing for culture and community” is a bit jarring, but teams tap into a lot of different veins to build and maintain support. MLS teams have been very proactive in building community support through outreach programs and few places in the world offer up such a range of cultural influences as does the vast area referred to as “L.A.”
I don’t see a lot of creativity in marching along the same path as several other teams, but to its credit, LAFC has its own market to conquer at first. And that will take some doing; the Galaxy has hammered out a devoted following by not only signing huge European stars such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard, but by cranking out attractive, successful teams year after year since Bruce Arena took over as head coach in 2008. He has guided the Galaxy to titles in 2011, 2013 and 2014, and has revamped the team in the wake of Landon Donovan’s retirement to again rank among the serious championship contenders. The Galaxy is also one of the few original MLS teams adorned with a good nickname, so much so that “Los Angeles” was dropped several years ago from the official name, which is L.A. Galaxy.
Chivas USA, which lurched through several re-shuffles of competitive and business personnel before being terminated at the end of the 2014 season, failed miserably to generate strong support among the huge CD Guadalajara fan base in Southern California, but it did draw a small core of loyalists that, for whatever reasons, refused to support the Galaxy. Simply marketing itself as the anti-Galaxy won’t be sufficient yet taking a few potshots at the glamorous rival is to be expected, and encouraged. If a rivalry is to be established it must be done at many levels. And with a Southern California population base in the low eight figures, there are plenty of potential soccer fans to be wooed.
But LA is still LA, and the owners of LAFC will need to attract at least a few big names if they want their fans to lustily chant “LA! FC! LA! FC!” game after game. If they do, following a tradition that is already looking tired won’t matter so much. They are being asked for their opinions about nicknames and team colors so in those areas, there's hope.
And I guess in one sense we should be thankful. Remember just two months ago, in a splendid display of overkill, came the official announcement of Atlanta United FC. Seriously? What, no Real?