LOS ANGELES -- Five years ago this week, in the first official statement from Los Angeles' newly-awarded Major League Soccer franchise, Henry Nguyen, the club's managing partner at the time, laid out a vision for something no team in the league had become.
"We believe this team can become one of the most outstanding clubs in [MLS] and a globally recognized brand," said Nguyen.
Considering the league had just folded Chivas USA after a disastrous 10-year existence sharing a stadium with the LA Galaxy in Carson, a healthy level of skepticism was understandable. Nobody would have blamed Nguyen for being more modest in his stated aspirations, but modesty was never going to be LAFC's style.
Since then, the organization has walked the walk. Not only does the team play some of the most attractive, attacking soccer in the league under former United States men's national team manager Bob Bradley, it does so in a beautiful downtown stadium where the in-game atmosphere is as good or better than any other sports team in town.
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LAFC set the single-season points record for an expansion team in 2018 and backed it up by turning in the most dominant regular season in league history in their second year. Mexican international Carlos Vela is re-writing the league's record book and leads a team with an exciting mix of diverse young talent, but for all LAFC's near-immediate success, there are two glaring boxes it has yet to check: beat the Galaxy and win a playoff game. Which is why Thursday's first-ever postseason "El Trafico" match (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Banc of California Stadium doesn't feel like just another conference semifinal. The stakes are much bigger than that.
These teams aren't just fighting to advance in this postseason; they're fighting for their place in the market. For LAFC, it would be hard for the team to classify the season as a success if it ends with yet another loss to the Galaxy. Conversely, a win would instantly become a seminal moment in club history and keep alive the possibility of finishing the year as the best team in league history.
But how did they get here? And how have they climbed so high so quickly?
On the day LAFC was formally announced, it hadn't yet settled on colors or unveiled a crest. Los Angeles Football Club was still just a placeholder name and when MLS commissioner Don Garber took the podium at the initial press conference, he wasn't there to introduce a team so much as a concept.
"We are here to announce a brand-new strategy for what we in [MLS] hope to achieve in this city," Garber said.
Garber and Nguyen were saying the same thing: Los Angeles had untapped potential. Historically, the Galaxy might have been the league's most successful franchise -- they've won a league-best five MLS Cups and have featured some of the world's most recognizable stars in David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- but armed with two decades' worth of lessons from trial-and-error across Major League Soccer, a blank slate in the country's most important soccer market really was a special opportunity.
For starters, how would they approach the battle in LA?
"Great adversaries on the field create great fan interest and great media interest," said Peter Guber, a media executive and the team's executive chairman. "It engages in more people in the sport, engages in more conversation and dialogue. You have to win the hearts and minds of your fans and create that dialogue. So, we have respect for it.
"Every movie needs a hero and a villain. Every combination brings drama to it. We're in the drama business and that's part of the drama. Can we compete?"
LAFC proved right away there was more than enough interest for a second team in the market. The fledgling franchise has sold out every MLS game it has played at its 22,000-seat home and even though the Galaxy's Ibrahimovic has the league's top-selling jersey, LAFC gear is becoming easy to find out and about around LA.
In the "movie" that is the LAFC story, Zlatan has been the unquestioned villain. With eight goals in five head-to-head meetings, he's the main reason the Galaxy is unbeaten in the series (2-0-3). He came off the bench to score two memorable goals in a 4-3 win in the first-ever game between the teams last season and has five goals in two games this year.
In the three-plus years leading up to the team's on-field debut in 2018, the club delivered on just about everything it set out to do. Beautiful (and accessible) soccer-specific stadium? Check. Passionate supporter culture? Check. Recognizable star? Vela was viewed as a unicorn in the league office.
When Bradley became available after a brief stint as at Swansea City, where he'd become the first American to manage in the English Premier League, LAFC general manager John Thorrington made him his top target. Together, along with assistant general manager Will Kuntz and a staff featuring two full-time scouts in South America, they've built a team with a nice mix of promising international talent and MLS veterans. By any reasonable measure, Year 1 was an overwhelming success as they became just the fifth expansion side to reach the playoffs. "And we were still left bitterly disappointed at the end," said Thorrington.
Conceding three goals against the run of play in a 3-2 loss can have that effect, but as discouraging as the first-round loss to Real Salt Lake might have been in 2018, there was no denying the club had laid the groundwork to build a potential juggernaut. There were some roster tweaks needed, but most of the heavy lifting was done.
"I think for us, for the most part, the [offseason] language was 'continuity and depth,' said Thorrington. "Having lived through one season, we set this team up to be sustainably competitive. I think last year taught us lessons about where we fell short in our goal of being competitive in the short, medium and long term. And so a lot of it was just getting better: the proverbial freshmen becoming sophomores. So that's a lot of what you see. It's the same guys for the most part."
With that as a backdrop, improvement was expected, and again, LAFC raised the bar. It set the single-season record for points (72) and goal differential (+48), and tied the single-season goals record (85). Vela broke the single-season records for both goals (34) and combined goals and assists (49), the latter of which he broke with 10 games remaining on the schedule. He's a sure bet to be named league MVP over Zlatan and Atlanta United striker Josef Martinez, who won the MVP in 2018 and set the record Vela quickly broke.
On former LAFC teammate Benny Feilhaber's podcast, Vela explained how both he and the team raised their levels of play in Year 2.
"Well, I think that first and more important thing is that we know each other now," said Vela. "When you go to a new school, you don't know the rest of the class. To be a good team, you have to spend time training a lot. Know how your teammates likes to play and after that, it's easier for you to know where you have to be, who has the ball, do I make a run or do I wait for another one. It's easy to play like that."
There's plenty of credit to go around, but both Vela and left-back Jordan Harvey made a point to mention Ghanaian midfielder Latif Blessing as one of the key, unexpected developments. Last year, Blessing was a change-of-pace winger without much end product, and in the offseason there was some thought internally that maybe he could help the team as a right back. Instead, Blessing transformed into an indispensable part of central midfield alongside Colombian Eduard Atuesta and Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Blessing, who was on the books for just $110,416 in 2019, was so good early in the season that Designated Player Andre Horta -- set to make nearly $1.3 million this year -- became an unnecessary roster accessory and was sold back to his former club in Portugal. That move opened the door for the acquisition of Uruguayan international Brian Rodriguez, a winger from Peñarol, the same club in Uruguay that produced the team's second-leading scorer, Diego Rossi.
"I think that's a credit to the [coaching] staff, recognizing these things, but then there's everything that went into building the roster," said Harvey. "They wanted to bring guys in here that have a level of soccer knowledge and IQ that they could take on these difficult nuances that Bob presents. And I think people are just more comfortable with that in Year 2."
When he signed with LAFC as a free agent, Harvey, now in his 13th MLS season, had already been part of two expansion teams (Philadelphia in 2010, Vancouver in 2011). He knew Thorrington from their time together as teammates in Vancouver, and though he didn't know Bradley well, his reputation as one of the greatest American managers of all time was appealing.
The same can be said for the LAFC-Galaxy series, which has already grown into arguably the best rivalry in the league. That drama Guber called for in 2014 has been delivered consistently even without the added pressure of competing in the postseason.
"Someone said to me, 'How will you ever going compete as the second team in the marketplace?'" said Guber. "I said, 'Well, by becoming the first team instead."
That chance has arrived.