The LA Galaxy are a Major League Soccer success story. One of the league's original teams, the club has been a star on the field -- winning a record five MLS Cups, four Supporters' Shields and MLS' only CONCACAF Champions' Cup -- and off it. They led the league in attendance nine times during the first 13 years, including a six-year stretch between 2003 and 2008. In 2007, the Galaxy pulled off the most audacious move in MLS history, landing international superstar David Beckham from Real Madrid. A sign in the bowels of the StubHub Center in Carson, California, reads "Unrivaled Since 96".
But MLS in 2018 is a very different place than it was 10 or even five years ago. The LA Galaxy squad, currently seventh in the league, is in danger of being eclipsed by other teams, including one in its own backyard. The Galaxy aren't going anywhere, but they could become increasingly irrelevant in an MLS landscape that is changing rapidly.
Last season was a low point for the Galaxy, probably the worst year for the charmed franchise. The team finished 8-18-8, 11th of 11 in the Western Conference, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The only trophy the club won was the Wooden Spoon, given to the MLS squad with the worst overall record. Attendance slipped by nearly 3,000 fans a game, a drop of more than 11 percent to just over 82 percent of StubHub's capacity.
"At the beginning of the season, [the atmosphere at the stadium] was great," Carlos Chavez, president of the LA Riot Squad, said. "Toward the middle and the end, it kind of waned. Last year, they pretty much forfeited some games before they started them, but I would show up to see my friends and support the club, of course. I show up because it's family. I want to see everyone."
The good news for the Galaxy is that the diehards such as Chavez will keep showing up and cheering. The bad news is that soccer continues to be a larger battle for hearts and minds, and there's another team in town that could suck up plenty of oxygen. Given the arrival of LAFC -- a squad with smart branding, exciting ownership, recognizable players and a shiny new stadium forthcoming -- the Galaxy couldn't have picked a worse time for a downturn.
All is not lost, as a single bad year does not irrelevance make. In fact, 2017 could be a wake-up call for a franchise that needed one.
"It gave us an opportunity to take a step back and make sure that we were addressing our fans' needs," Brendan Hannan, the team's vice president of marketing, communications and digital, said. "That's making sure that we have a strong product on the field and making sure that we are continually involved in our community.
"We've opened a number of fields in the area. The LA Galaxy Foundation raised over $600,000 a year, which is the largest foundation in Major League Soccer. It's continuing to focus on what our mission has been for the last 22 years, and that has been to grow the game of soccer in the United States and to continue to engage fans of soccer in the city of Los Angeles."
The offseason involved a dramatic revamp of a roster desperate for one. Sigi Schmid, taking over personnel duties from Peter Vagenas, added Ola Kamara, Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius and David Bingham, along with two full internationals and the No. 2 pick in the SuperDraft. Throw in the Dos Santos brothers, Romain Alessandrini, Sebastian Lletget and a handful of returning players, and it's a team that can compete for the playoffs at least.
That's good. But this is L.A. we're talking about, a town that lives and dies with its celebrities. Getting the hard-core fans back on board is one thing. "We'd rather have cups than stars," Chavez said. Getting the rest of the city to come along is another task entirely. "L.A. is a town that likes its celebrity appeal and gets behind big names," Hannan said. "It's a big part of the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles." Local stories such as Gyasi Zardes are wonderful, but they don't sell tickets.
Enter Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Galaxy signed Ibrahimovic last week, and he might be ready for Saturday afternoon's showcase against LAFC. He's the type of signing fans get excited about on and off the field. It's not quite David Beckham coming to L.A., but it's about as big a name as MLS could reasonably get.
"I think [Los Angeles Times writer Kevin] Baxter broke it at 6:45 a.m.," Chavez said. "I got my first text at 6:47 a.m. I was getting texts all morning. Everyone was on Facebook posting about it. Most views and likes we've gotten in a long time. Everyone is buzzed about it."
Ibrahimovic will, without a doubt, bring buzz to a club that needs it. He'll get butts in the seats, giving casual fans a reason to travel the 22 miles from Santa Monica to StubHub, even when Banc of California Stadium is more centrally located 12.5 miles north on the 110.
Whether he helps the Galaxy win, however, is an open question. Chavez think he will. "There's no reason he can't get 10, 15 goals," he said. "And that's more than [Giovani dos Santos]'s getting. It's definitely going to be a big help."
Perhaps. But Ibrahimovic is 36, going on 37, and he is returning from a significant knee injury. The charm of his audacious arrogance has always been his ability to back up his outsized rhetoric with his otherworldly talent and imagination. If he can no longer perform, his shtick will grow tired very quickly, especially in MLS, a league fighting off a stereotype of a place where old players come for a final year or two.
The Battle for Los Angeles begins in earnest on Saturday at StubHub Center. Bob Bradley's upstart crew remain the only MLS club with a perfect record. A victory for the Galaxy would mark a significant first win in what's going to be a years-long fight.
Chavez and his crew are looking forward to getting started. "They are just rebranded," he said. "It's Chivas USA in a different color and uniform. It's the same fan groups, the same fans. It's nothing different. We are going to beat them just like we beat Chivas USA.
"I think L.A. is big enough for the both of us. And I think we should beat them every time we play them."