Will Ferrell, Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela and the story of LAFC, MLS’ newest club

In Depth

On October 30, 2014, Los Angeles Football Club was announced. A little over three years later they have a head coach, a marquee player, a 22,000-seater stadium and 19,000 members ready and waiting for the action to start.

This is the story of the birth of a new club in one of America’s most vibrant, diverse cities, and the development of an impassioned football community, all before a ball has been kicked.

But just how do you go about starting a football scrub from scratch?

Rich Orosco, executive vice president of brand and community, was among the first 10 people to work for LAFC. He certainly didn’t set out with the answers already in hand.

“None of us knew how we would launch a new sports team in Los Angeles and get any sort of traction,” he says.

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When LAFC was announced, the city had just witnessed the demise of Chivas USA, an ill-fated offshoot of Mexican club Chivas Guadalajara that dissolved in October 2014. That same season, LA Galaxy won their fifth MLS Cup to become the most successful club in the history of the league.

To stand any chance of success, it was clear the new club would have to carve its own niche in the crowded LA sports market, distinct from the Galaxy and avoiding the mistakes of Chivas USA. To do that, it had to be rooted in one thing: authenticity.

“We were laser-focused on being authentic to Los Angeles and being authentic to global football,” Orosco says. It helps explain the club’s name, simple but recognisable.

“There were a lot of options on the table. LA United; Inter LA; there’s an old NASL team called the LA Aztecs. What we settled on with the ‘FC’ was when someone from anywhere round the world sees LAFC, they understand we’re a proper football club and we’re part of a whole conversation of the sport.”

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That ethos was at the forefront of everyone’s minds when it came to designing a club crest. But without any actual product on the pitch yet, the club needed to attract attention to build a fanbase.

Using the distinctive colours of black and gold, the brief was to create something iconic.

“We wanted to create a mark that Angelenos could be proud of, and we were very focused on making it so that every single element of the crest had an authentic LA narrative around it,” Orosco says.

“The shape of the crest was derived from the city shield of Los Angeles. The Art Deco font was a remnant of the 1920s building expansion in LA.”

The wings represent power, strength and speed, and pay homage to the ‘City of Angels’. That gold LA logo made its way onto the black baseball cap, which Orosco says “has become the symbol for our club.”

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The cap has become a fundamental part of the LAFC image – worn by Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela at their unveiling as manager and first player – and adorned by fans in their thousands.

The success of the LAFC brand so far should come as no surprise.

The ownership group, headed by venture capitalist Henry Nguyen, also includes Peter Guber, who had also overseen success at the Golden State Warriors and LA Dodgers; former National Basketball Association executive Tom Penn; QPR co-chairman Ruben Gnanalingam; Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan; and Larry Berg and Bennett Rosenthal, who also have a stake in AS Roma and Swansea City.

Clearly, there is no shortage of knowledge, but they lead a wider group of owners that include former LA Lakers basketball player Magic Johnson, women’s soccer legend Mia Hamm and actor Will Ferrell. There is more than business acumen alone among that lot.

Carlos the Candle and Bob the Builder

As expected, Ferrell has been a humourous presence in the club’s marketing arsenal so far, his antics including a televised plea in Spanish on ESPN this summer to lure Javier Hernandez to LA.

While Chicharito was unmoved, another highly talented Mexican, Carlos Vela, was revealed recently as the club’s first Designated Player. Still only 28, he represents a real coup for both LAFC and MLS.

“It’s clearly pretty significant”, Alicia Rodriguez of the LAFC blog Angels on Parade says. “With Sebastian Giovinco being the gold standard of an impact player, in his prime, signing in MLS and lighting up the league, it’s clear that MLS teams cannot sign three big-name players in their mid-30s and find full success these days.”

One of those over-30s who failed to really make an impact in the US was Steven Gerrard, who played for LAFC’s neighbours LA Galaxy last season. Similarly, Andrea Pirlo – another midfield great of yesteryear – is proving more of a hindrance than a help to NYCFC these days.

“Vela is a top-10 player in the league in terms of talent,” Rodriguez says. “If he’s motivated and has a good surrounding cast at LAFC, he should be immediately impactful, both on and off the field.”

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Conveniently, Vela contains the letters LA, presenting the club with a merchandising opportunity they have made the most of by selling Vela logo tees.

The fans are on board. In fact, taking ‘candle’ as the English translation of the Spanish word Vela, they have written the player a chant already – “We got the candle for LA” to the tune of ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands‘.

In a city where over half the families speak a language other than English at home, cultivating an international spirit and mingling of different cultures is key to the club’s development.

“Our focus is to build a community that represents the great diversity of this city and be inclusive to all,” Orosco says.

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READ: The story of Boca Raton, the American fourth tier & the ex-Brazil international

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The Candle will be playing under Bob Bradley, who returns to the US for his first managerial role since a disappointing spell at Swansea City.

Despite that, there is excitement around Bradley and fond memories of his tenure as the National Team manager, including a win over Spain at the Confederations Cup in 2009 and a run to the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup.

“I think the fanbase is generally delighted by Bradley’s appointment,” Rodriguez says. “He’s the only American manager to have coached as extensively in Europe, while also having a successful track record in MLS, and he seems genuinely motivated and energized by the challenge.”

That energy is exactly what Orosco and co. were looking for when making these first additions to the coaching and playing staff. The hope is that they will inspire others to follow.

“I think it pours gasoline on everything we’ve been promising,” Orosco says. “Players in their prime, coaches with global experience.”

A Cathedral of Soccer

With branding on point and big plans for the actual team, LAFC needed a new stadium befitting of the city and the project, too.

The Banc of California Stadium broke ground a year ago, on the campus of the University of Southern California, a central location. “It’s literally in the heart of Los Angeles,” Orosco says.

“Our ambition as a club is just to represent the city the best way we can, and I think that kind of humility for what we’re about is getting people’s attention.”

The stadium itself is open-air yet intimate, and with impressive views of the LA cityscape. It will house the steepest stand in MLS, with Nguyen saying the aim is for it to “be one of the cathedrals of soccer”.

The North End stand will contain the first ever safe standing section with rail seats in North America, and it’s total capacity (3252) has inspured the name of the club’s Independent Supporters Union, the 3252.

Creating something with the people of LA and realising the wishes of football fans has been an intrinsic part of the club’s vision from the off. Orosco speaks of the importance of creating a community “street by street, block by block, one by one”.

That’s the reality of pitching up in a city where the Galaxy are already an established club – LAFC have to think differently.

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However, there are already signs that a healthy rivalry is developing. Back in May, an LAFC mural went up in the Pico-Union neighbourhood of Los Angeles – but it wasn’t long before Galaxy fans had painted over it with their own team name.

“The rivalry, such as it can be between one existing and one theoretical team, is picking up steam,” Rodriguez says.

“It seems like this rivalry has the potential to really take off, if both teams are competitive, and it could rival the NY Derby in terms of the rapidity with which a local derby gains traction in MLS.”

It’s all part of a very exciting time for the sports fans of Los Angeles. The Chargers will be joining the LA Rams in the NFL, creating another crosstown derby, while a deal has just been struck for the city to host the Olympics in 2028.

For Orosco, it’s all connected: “When a city hosts the Olympics it’s about the city coming together, celebrating what they’re about and being an incredible host. I feel that’s a similar feeling people are having about LAFC.”

By Hugo Greenhalgh

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