How Mexico's stars are deciding fans' allegiances in Los Angeles
A sense of anxiety is starting to creep into Javier Ochoa of Covina, California. The nights are becoming more sleepless. The worry and angst increase with each passing day.
These are feelings usually reserved for the very biggest of Mexico national team games or a Clasico Nacional between his beloved Chivas de Guadalajara and Club America, yet here is Ochoa fretting over a team that less than a year ago could not even fill out a starting XI.
It's all because it's Rivalry Week in Los Angeles, and Ochoa is desperate to see LAFC avenge its two soul-crushing results from earlier this season against the LA Galaxy and beat its crosstown rivals on Friday (10:30 ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes).
"I'm already nervous. I'm already excited," Ochoa said to ESPN FC. "I'm experiencing the same anxiety as I would have in a Mexico World Cup game or a Clasico. I love Chivas first and then LAFC, but after that first Galaxy game, man, I want to beat them so bad."
Ochoa is one of many El Tri fans in the City of Angels who might have previously scoffed at or ignored MLS but are now drawn to one of the league's most riveting rivalries, thanks to the presence of three Mexican national team stalwarts: Carlos Vela of LAFC and Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos of the Galaxy.
"Before 2018, I maybe went to two Galaxy games a year to watch Gio, but now there is way more of a buzz in L.A. with Vela at LAFC," said Ivan Toribio of Montebello, California. "It has created more of a rivalry. People are talking about this game."
Toribio would know. He heads up the Los Angeles chapter of Pancho Villa's Army, a Mexican national team supporters group in the United States. Toribio estimates that of the 50 paying members of PVA-Los Angeles, the breakdown is 35-15 LAFC to Galaxy fans. The news doesn't surprise Ochoa, who is also part of PVA-L.A.
"LAFC did a good job reaching out to the Mexican community with their marketing and everything," Ochoa said. "Signing Vela was huge. He's such a popular player. I've been following him since his under-17 days. Also, everyone likes the black jersey. It's cool, kind of like the old L.A. Raiders jerseys."
Some, however, remain unconvinced that LAFC will become a household name.
"It's all hype, man," said Galaxy fan and PVA-L.A. member Javier Diaz of Norwalk, California. "This is the Galaxy's town. They still haven't beaten us. Their fans just came out of nowhere. It'll be just like it was with Chivas USA. In a couple seasons, they'll be done."
While Diaz's words make for great message board/social media fodder, there is an acknowledgement that the presence of LAFC has sparked an interest in both teams from many a Mexico fan.
"I see way more Mexico fans now at Galaxy games, people wearing Gio or Jonathan dos Santos Galaxy jerseys or their Mexico jerseys," Diaz said. "People who didn't even follow soccer are into it. The rivalry really exploded, and I think they should try to attract more Mexico players. I'd love to see more Mexico players with the Galaxy or even LAFC."
Aside from the knuckleheaded actions of a small group of fans, the pregame atmospheres at LAFC and Galaxy games have the same staples seen at Mexico friendlies in the U.S.: early tailgates, big grills smothered with meat and the always festive mariachis.
"LAFC games are like Mexico games," Ochoa said. "It's a family thing. You see friends, parents, kids playing, there's a lot of food and games, people sitting around, talking about the game. When I went to Galaxy games years ago, you would just go to the game, and that was it. It's way different now for both."
Another byproduct of following Vela and the Dos Santos brothers has been the uptick in interest in the rest of the league. Mexico fans who could maybe identify only a handful of MLS teams a few years ago are watching teams such as Atlanta United and the "wow" moments produced by the league's stars.
"People still favor Liga MX overall, but you see more people into MLS," Toribio said. "There's more star power with guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Wayne Rooney. Mexico fans are watching MLS more, checking social media, asking me for tickets. Talent-wise, Liga MX is still ahead. Entertainment-wise, it's MLS."
And if the first two games were any indication, the growing Mexican fan bases of LAFC and the Galaxy should be treated to another show on Friday.