TUKWILA — Coming off a Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double-winning season and playing some of the most impressive soccer the league has ever seen, it’s easy to forget that when LAFC was first born it was under a bit of a dark cloud.
Officially, LAFC were a completely new team. Unofficially, the team was essentially raised from the ashes of the failed Chivas USA experiment, something that had gone so badly that the new owners wanted to erase virtually all memory of it.
One of the first big roster-building decisions they made was that rather than emulate their Angelino neighbors by signing splashy “names”, LAFC’s front office took a page from their fellow West Coasters in Seattle. Like the Sounders, LAFC figured that fans would show up as long as they were playing attractive soccer, independent of how famous the players were.
As if to drive the comparison, LAFC even played their first-ever competitive match against the Sounders and then opened their gleaming new stadium against them as well. Notably, LAFC won both encounters.
In the four seasons since, it seems like whenever the two teams have met the stakes have only gotten higher as they’ve established themselves as arguably the top two teams in MLS. The Sounders have given as well as they’ve gotten — especially at Lumen Field where they have gone six straight unbeaten and in the playoffs where they’ve won both meetings.
It prompts a natural question: Is this a rivalry?
“This is a big game between two of the biggest clubs in MLS and it’s going to be a good game,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said when directly asked the question.
That’s probably a better way to put it, especially since “rivalry” tends to imply a certain amount of bad blood. While you won’t find LAFC or Sounders fans rooting for each other’s teams, they also very clearly occupy a different space in their hearts than, say, the LA Galaxy or Portland Timbers.
There’s also a good deal of respect shared between the two organizations.
LAFC sees the Sounders as a team that understands how to win without being overly committed to a style.
“[The Sounders] try to win as many games as they can,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo told the media this week. “At times, it’s pragmatic, at times pretty football. It’s how the game presents itself. It’s a team that’s good at getting results and grinding results out. That’s what’s coming our way.”
The Sounders, meanwhile, seem to appreciate LAFC’s ambition. LAFC is currently trying to follow in the Sounders’ footsteps of winning CCL and are going to be playing their fourth match in 10 days, but refusing to present that as an excuse.
“They’re not content and that’s a scary thing,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “They want more and more and more.”
Coming off their first-ever playoff-less season, the Sounders find themselves in a position once occupied by LAFC: Looking to make a statement.
“The intensity that FC Cincinnati brought to us, we have to bring to LAFC,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said earlier this week. “That’s really important.
“It’s another opportunity to send a statement out to the rest of the league, to ourselves, that we can compete on a weekly basis.”