Commentary / MLS

MLS fans close popularity gap at 2021 All-Star Game

Photo: Thomas Hill

If you weren’t physically in attendance Wednesday night at the 2021 MLS All-Star game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the most intense action of the night happened on the pitch. It was thrilling to see Major League Soccer win the best vs. best showdown against Liga MX through a dramatic penalty shootout. Yet, despite the literal and proverbial fireworks on the pitch Wednesday night, the most impassioned moments of the evening happened not on the field but in the stands. 

Wednesday night’s all-star game was played at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. It was the first MLS All-Star event to feature the league’s best facing off against their southern counterparts in the All-Stars of Liga MX. For that reason alone, Wednesday night’s match had a bit more at stake than your typical All-Star event. For years both Mexican and American fans have clung to every result between the two leagues, desperately searching for any evidence to claim that their league is superior to their neighbors’. Yet, in reality, the two leagues are relatively equal on the playing field.

While Liga MX has taken most of the cross-league matchups, MLS is on their heels, and the matches have become increasingly tight affairs. LAFC beat two of Liga MX’s perennial greats in Cruz Azul and Club America to earn their berth in the 2020 CCL Final. The argument that one league is better than the other at this point comes down to whether or not you believe more in the history of Liga MX’s dominance or the budding potential of Major League Soccer. But even with results becoming increasingly close between the two leagues, there’s still a harsh reality even the most optimistic MLS fans can’t deny. Liga MX dominates the popularity contest.  

It’s nearly impossible to watch a matchup between the two leagues without seeing a crowd dominated by Liga MX fans. Regardless of where the match is played, Mexican clubs enjoy unwavering support in the thousands. During friendlies, sides like Tigres, Club America, and Pumas draw droves of dedicated “incondicionales”’ to support and cheer on their clubs. While it’s debatable what league has the more skilled athletes, there’s no argument against what country has the more dedicated fans. Well, no argument until now.

Wednesday night’s All-Star game proved more than MLS’ edge on the pitch; it showed a glimpse of a future where not only are MLS Clubs as popular as their Mexican counterparts, their fans are just as crazy. To make this argument, I’m going to have to switch into the ever-chagrined first person. Forgive me.

I was lucky enough to attend the 2021 All-Star game for work purposes unrelated to PSP. As a result, I found myself navigating LAFC’s supporters’ section Wednesday night as I made my way to the photographer’s row at the bottom. During this navigation of the supporters’ section, I noticed the first signs of something unusual. Despite the area having been sold as general admission, without the designation of a supporters section, unmistakable signs of the end’s usual occupants were omnipresent. 

Scarves hung across railings, tied tight to the metal banisters designed to keep supporters safe, black shirts and bandanas abounded through the section. While no drums or flags were visible, odd gaps in attendees hinted that something else was occupying the empty spaces. Over the first forty minutes, nothing came of these abnormalities. The crowd chanted “USA!” or “Mexico!” depending on the flow of the game, and while fans heard the occasional “LAFC” chant, nothing seemed out of place across league All-Star games played in LA. I was in my element and hyper-focused on the job at hand. That is until someone grabs me from behind and starts shouting, “Film that shit!”

Jarred from watching the game in front of me, I turn to see an LAFC fan fighting off a plethora of security and police, all while hurling obscenities at a fan donning a LA Galaxy jersey. The Galaxy fan hurls insults of his own, though refrains from any physical confrontation. His lack of aggression does nothing to deter those around me from vilifying him, though. Before I know it, the pretense of the section behind me being devoid of LAFC supporters has vanished. 

Drums begin to pound, flags emerge from the gaps I noticed earlier, and capos climb onto railings belayed by the scarfs tied to the barricades. “Fuck the Galaxy!” rings out in unison from roughly two thousand LAFC supporters that have found their way into their typical stand despite the league’s best effort to keep the venue neutral. The chant carries on for the final five minutes of the first half, and only when the ref’s whistle cuts through the beating drums does the crowd quiet. 

Intrigued by the sudden life in the supporters’ section, I leaned over to the man who grabbed me earlier and asked what got the section so lively all of a sudden. “They planned this, and they hate Galaxy” he responds while smiling. I raise my eyebrows at him in amusement. “They snuck the drums in, snuck the flags in. They don’t care what the league says, that’s just who they are,” he continues. I ask him if he’s a part of the 3252 (LAFC’s largest supporters group) and he laughs and looks around nervously before saying quietly, “No, I’m a Galaxy fan.”. He explains how his friend supports Monterey and he just wanted to come to the game with him. “They love their club, it’s different here.” 

Knowing the demographics of LAFC’s 3252, I ask the one thing that’s been confusing me. “Why are they supporting LAFC at an All-Star game? Aren’t most Hispanic?”. He laughs again and says “Yeah” without elaborating. I press him to explain. “Because they’re crazy,” he says as if that explains it all. At this moment, one of the more vocal LAFC fans, a lanky Mexican man, comes and joins our conversation. At first, I’m worried about the potential rivalry between the two, but before I can worry much, the LAFC fan puts his arm around the man I’d been talking with earlier. 

“We’re the same!” The LAFC fan says enthusiastically as if he’s been listening to the conversation the whole time. “He’s here right now because he respects us, and we respect him.”. The Galaxy fan looks apprehensive but puts his arm around the LAFC fan. He nods, seemingly indicating, “Fair enough.” “What about the fight over there then?” I ask, indicating the section where the shouting match occurred. The LAFC fan shrugs, and looks to ponder the question before saying, “we gotta be together, we’re the same league, we want the same things.” Curious about his loyalties, I ask point-blank if he’s Mexican. “Yeah, I am. My family was born there, but I grew up here. This is my home,” he answers. He explains the conflict in his heart when he watches the US play Mexico in an international competition before elaborating more on LAFC. 

“This is my club. LAFC is our club. The 3252 is my family dog. If you’re not one of us, you can’t understand. We don’t care what you look like, what color you are, who you like. As long as you’re LAFC, you’re family.” he says. It’s a paradoxical statement, but he’s drunk, and I get it, even if it doesn’t make sense. He leaves the conversation without warning and runs up the stairs. I watch him run into the next section and join an ongoing brawl consisting of LAFC fans, Galaxy fans, and Liga MX fans. It doesn’t make sense, but then again, it does. 

The rest of the match continues with more minor fights breaking out around the stadium and LAFC fans singing in full voice for a team that isn’t even represented on the field for most of the game. LAFC supporters antagonize Liga MX fans and drown out chants of “Mexico!” and “Si se puede!” with their Spanish songs about LAFC. They’re outrageous acts of loyalty, but they’re acts of loyalty all the same. Even five years ago, could anyone have predicted that Liga MX would be outshouted in LA? Sure it’s an All-Star game, but still.

Critics could use any number of excuses to explain away why what happened in the stands Wednesday means nothing, and a lot of them would probably be valid. Tickets were costly; the game was played mid-week, both sides had players pull out, All-Star games aren’t as prominent a concept in Liga MX… the list goes on. Yet, at the end of the day, does it matter? It did happen; MLS fans were in stronger voice, MLS fans were the ones acting deranged, MLS fans were instigating, and taking the fight (sometimes literally) to others. For once, MLS fans were the crazy ones, the passionate ones.

This isn’t to condone violence or to encourage similar behavior. This is to say that in the history of soccer competition between these two countries, between these two leagues, the United States has never been the aggressor, and whether you agree with the methods or not, it can only be good for Major League Soccer and its goal to become the premier league in the continent. 

One Comment

  1. Gruncle Bob says:

    The atmosphere as seen on TV was impressive, especially for a mid-week as you said.

    I would agree that at the top – their best against our best players, the quality is similar. But we have to acknowledge that it’s the best from 27 teams vs. 18 teams.

    On a team by team basis, I think Liga MX quality is still better. They don’t have a salary cap and it shows in better squad depth and at specific positions like CB where MLS teams “pinch pennies” due to the cap.

    Nice piece, thanks for taking the time to write it up.

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