Late in the afternoon, July 4, 2023, just northeast of downtown Los Angeles. In suburban Pasadena, Calif., over 80,000 people file into the Rose Bowl. The stadium was originally built over a century ago, and has hosted hundreds of events, including Super Bowls, college football national championships, and World Cup finals.
But tonight, it was the venue for two teams much closer to home: the LA Galaxy and the Los Angeles Football Club, two Major League Soccer teams, meeting for the third time that season and playing with the entire city as witnesses.
This game was technically just a regular season league match—playoffs wouldn’t come until later in the fall. But so much more was on the line. This was not just any game. This was the Los Angeles Derby. This was El Tráfico. This was a rivalry game, with bragging rights up for grabs, and potentially the soul of the city at stake. And what that meant, on a warm July evening in the City of Angels, although Los Angeles—and the whole country—had just been united in celebrating America, for the next 90 minutes, the city would be divided.
What sets soccer fandom apart from the other major sports in the United States is the presence of ultras: the club’s most die–hard fans organized into groups that are sometimes recognized by the team. The're very common in continental Europe and parts of South America, and have had a presence in MLS for years. Ultras groups provide passionate support above and beyond the level of an average fan, complete with drums, smoke, banners, and organized chants.
Both LAFC and the Galaxy have numerous organized ultras groups. LAFC’s are mostly organized under the umbrella of the 3252, named after the number of seats in their home on the north end of BMO Stadium. The Galaxy have several groups as well, like Angel City Brigade and the LA Riot Squad.
In a way, both teams' fan bases—especially the ultras groups—highlight the differences between the two clubs. The Galaxy are much older, having played their first game at the Rose Bowl over 25 years ago. Their fan base grew more organically over time, with LA Riot Squad founded after the team lost in the MLS Cup in 2001. LAFC is newer, having only played its first matches in 2018. But what the club lacks in time to build traditions, it makes up for in effort and investment in the fans. The 3252 was announced before the club ever took the pitch.
“I think what LAFC has done well and you continue to see is that they focus on the fans,” Gio Garcia, who runs LA Soccer Hub—a podcast dedicated to the city’s professional soccer scene—says. “They built a really strong foundation with the fans and they really empowered their fans … and you see it when you go to games at BMO Stadium, you see how much pride and passion there is in just [a few] years of the actual club playing.”
From LAFC’s beginnings, the club was locked in a rivalry with the Galaxy. The conflict was cemented the first time the two teams played, in March of 2018. For decades, the Galaxy were the toast of MLS, and brought international talents like David Beckham and—importantly—Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swedish striker had signed for the Galaxy just a week before the two teams’ first meeting, and immediately made a splash by announcing his arrival with a full–page newspaper ad that simply read, “Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome.” But in the first half of this inaugural Los Angeles Derby, LAFC was the one flexing its muscles, quickly jumping out to a 3-0 lead. But their advantage didn’t last; the Galaxy thundered back, scoring four straight goals—including two from Ibrahimovic—to eventually emerge victorious.
For Garcia, not only was that first contest an incredible soccer game, but it also did a great job of setting the stage for the ongoing rivalry. That game “had every single storyline that you would want in a rivalry,” he says. Garcia credits Ibrahimovic for fueling El Tráfico, calling him “a perfect dance partner for [LAFC star forward] Carlos Vela, who is a little bit quieter.”
While Galaxy won that first matchup, it didn’t take LAFC long to seize momentum. The very next year—in 2019—they had the best regular–season record in MLS. It was during the 2019 season that according to Garcia, Galaxy fans began to acknowledge that LAFC was talented, and that they could actually be something. And last season, in a show of how far they’ve come, LAFC had the best regular–season record again and ended the season with their first–ever MLS Cup win.
The July 4 matchup was the third between the two clubs during the 2023 season. Earlier in the year, each team had won at the other’s stadium. But what made this clash different was the neutral site. Fans were split 50/50, and both teams were given an equal number of seats for their respective ultras groups.
“There haven’t been that many things at the Rose Bowl where you can get 82,000 fans at the stadium and get it packed like that,” Garcia says. “It goes to show that the MLS is obviously here to stay, but it also shows that this rivalry is only getting better and people want to see this rivalry … and I think that if it’s your first time experiencing [MLS], regardless of whether you know the sport or not, if people went to that game they got their money’s worth.”
Each teams’ ultras were given the sections behind each goal line, while the sidelines were officially designated neutral. In those ultras sections, people could not enter if they were wearing opposing team’s colors. To prevent some of the violence that had plagued supporters’ groups in Europe and elsewhere in MLS, extra security measures were taken. All drinks were poured into paper cups, and no metal cups were allowed into the stands. In front of each teams’ supporters section, there was a line of extra security guards.
In the hour leading up to the game, both supporters groups put on a show. LAFC’s fans proudly displayed their team scarves during the teams’ walkouts. But then, with about ten minutes left before kickoff, the Galaxy end unveiled their coup de grace: a giant tifo. These banners are common in Europe, and this one covered multiple sections. On it were written the words “ayer, hoy, siempre,” meaning “yesterday, today, forever” in Spanish. Alongside the words were some of the club's many trophies and club legends, showcasing the club’s legacy and history.
From kickoff, both teams’ fans began their non–stop chanting and singing. With each goal, the fans shot off numerous smoke bombs and small fireworks. The Galaxy struck first, but LAFC tied the game 1-1 in the 57th minute. Then Galaxy star Ricqi Puig scored the winner in the 73rd minute, which emboldened Galaxy fans, especially after a potential LAFC goal was called off for offsides. Galaxy ultras set off numerous flares and smoke bombs, some of which wafted over the pitch before being removed by crowd control officers. As the final whistle approached and then sounded, braggadocious Galaxy fans waved the white towels they were provided upon entrance.
As the crowd filed out into the warm night—or settled back into their seats—to watch the pre–planned fireworks from their cars, there was a mix of emotions. Most Galaxy fans were upbeat, as this victory meant a fifth–straight game without a loss. But the LAFC supporters were more downtrodden, having just experienced another slip in a less–than–perfect title defense.
But post–game, all the fans, LAFC and Galaxy, joined together. They weren’t going to insult each other or chant for their teams. Instead, they sat side–by–side, in their seats and in the beds of pickup trucks in the parking lot, and looked to the sky to watch the fireworks, as one city, united.