LAFC had a memorable start in MLS, showing promise of what's to come
SEATTLE -- In the depths of CenturyLink Field, the chant could be faintly heard.
"La-la la-la-la-la-laaaaa, L-A-F-Ceeeeee."
Major League Soccer's latest expansion team to begin play hadn't won a championship. Not even close. But Sunday's 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in its debut match was worth a chant or two, and in its aftermath one couldn't begrudge the LAFC players for celebrating a special moment.
Granted, the win owed itself mostly to some gritty defending -- and some poor Seattle finishing -- though there were moments of dynamic attacking play from the visitors. But even manager Bob Bradley, who barely changed his facial expression when Diego Rossi's game-winner settled into the net in the 11th minute, was almost effusive afterward.
"It's a great win," Bradley said with a grin. "The first 25 minutes I thought the football was actually pretty good. After that it was more about fighting and defending. But when you're starting out as a team, you have to learn how to win different types of games. A lot of guys gave big efforts."
They did indeed and the performances and effort went beyond the obvious of Rossi scoring. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller had spent the last two-and-a-half seasons in Seattle, buried behind starter Stefan Frei, but when the Sounders exposed him in the expansion draft LAFC pounced. The soccer gods took note, and Miller came back to haunt his former club with a stellar performance, all in front of his parents Brian and Cindy who were seeing him play as a professional live for the first time.
Defender Laurent Ciman was also immense in the back, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he scarcely played in preseason. LAFC also had a hurdle thrown in front of it following the pregame warm-up when center back Walker Zimmerman was deemed unfit to play, with Dejan Jakovic stepping in. But Ciman was involved in countless defensive plays, including a vital challenge to deflect Harry Shipp's goal-bound effort over the bar in the first half.
Carlos Vela did his bit as well, setting up Rossi for the only goal and doing plenty of dirty work -- like tracking back on defense, engaging with some long runs with the ball, and winning throw-ins -- that relieved some pressure and allowed some gassed teammates a chance to rest. He even appeared to win a second-half penalty, with only referee Jose Carlos Rivero thinking otherwise.
"Of course, it was a difficult game, [Seattle] played really well," Vela said. "But the team never give up, always tried to win the game, and thankfully we have the three points."
There are any number of things that have to go right for an expansion team to have success in its first season. The side needs to stay healthy, and cohesion needs to be established quickly. The team's marquee players need to live up to that label as well, and at least for one game, Vela and Ciman did just that.
"[Ciman] and Carlos, in a really short time, have forged a good relationship," Bradley said. "Those are two important guys and you can see the leadership part -- with Jordan [Harvey], with Benny [Feilhaber], Steve Beitashour -- for a new team has been really good."
This was a day that was over three years in the making, so it would have been special no matter what the result. The vast majority of LAFC's ownership group -- which according to the team's website stands at 30 individuals -- was there to soak in the occasion with upward of 500 fans that filled a section of the upper deck of the stadium. The owners' bus even made a pit stop at a nearby watering hole on the way to the stadium for a pregame celebration with the team's fans.
There was tension as well, however, even for minority owner Nomar Garciaparra, a retired 14-year veteran of Major League Baseball. When asked at halftime if he had been nervous before the game, he responded, "Hah! Absolutely. As my first game in the owners box, it stinks because it's a lot easier being out there on the field. At least as an athlete, regardless of the anxiety, you have control when you're going out there. It's the same passion as your watching and pulling for these guys. The nerves and anxiety are there, but I have no control."
Those nerves gave way to euphoria afterward, and the victory proved to be the perfect capper to a historic day for the organization.
"It was crazy good," co-managing owner Bennett Rosenthal said. "It was a lot of fun. [At the end], it was just crazy. Our hearts are still pumping."
Of course, this isn't the end of the book but rather the beginning of a new chapter. There are more games to play and a new stadium to open. And Bradley, as has long been his habit, isn't one to get carried away by one victory. He bemoaned how his side played "way too many long balls" that made life difficult for striker Marco Urena. It's also notable that the win came against a Seattle side with a CONCACAF Champions League match against Chivas de Guadalajara looming Wednesday, leading Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer to rest forward Clint Dempsey and defender Chad Marshall.
But LAFC was determined to show well in its first match, regardless of whatever obstacles its opponent might have been facing. That goal was accomplished in terms of the points gained.
"We talked today that you only get one chance for [a first impression], so you've got to show what you're all about," Bradley said. "I don't think we showed, football-wise, what we're capable of, but that's only going to get better. I'm confident that as we build this team, that we're going to see some real football."
If that's the case, LAFC should have many more memorable days like this one.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.