LOS ANGELES — The stadium lights flickered and composer Ennio Morricone’s haunting “The Ecstasy of Gold” blasted through the Banc of California Stadium sound system Saturday, just as they always do before Los Angeles FC’s home games.
At this point, a falconer usually emerges from a tunnel and sends Olly, LAFC’s red-naped shaheen, soaring and swooping over the fans’ heads before landing on the green grass.
Instead, the only bird in sight was a green parrot watching alongside a young LAFC supporter amid the bank of virtual fans on the video boards above the empty stands.
The eighth edition of the El Trafico rivalry was like nothing ever seen at this downtown edifice, which has been a North American soccer hotbed since LAFC opened it just 2 1/2 years ago. Although the stadium maintained part of its usual pregame pomp and ceremony before Major League Soccer’s latest restart, no fans and no falcons were allowed inside, leaving the league’s most tantalizing rivalry lacking a key element in its success.
“We will miss our fans and all the atmosphere they create for this game in particular,” said LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the reigning MLS MVP. “But this is the new life. We have to be ready. We still have to put on a good show for our fans, because for sure they’ll be watching at their house.”
The 3,252 fans who pack the North End of LAFC’s stadium for every game were absent when Major League Soccer returned to action this week, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Not many even showed up to be near the stadium on game day, heeding LAFC’s admonitions to watch from home. Artful banners covered the seats typically taken up by singing, dancing supporters reveling in this young club’s festive home atmosphere.
The public address system was cranked up to levels that seemed deafening without the buffering presence of fans’ bodies and voices. When the game began, the stadium kept the same volume for its artificial crowd noise, which included the LAFC 3252’s signature chants and songs.
In keeping with LAFC fans’ tradition, the fake crowd volume even stayed the same when the Galaxy’s Ethan Zubak opened the scoring with his first MLS goal in the first half. The North End fans never stop making noise, and neither did the recorded sound.
If the on-field matchup between powerhouse LAFC and the struggling Galaxy lacked some of its usual bite, the players didn’t think that way.
“It doesn’t really matter where you play this game,” Galaxy veteran Sebastian Lletget said.
El Trafico immediately became one of the most exciting things in North American soccer thanks to the heroics of Vela and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who traded jaw-dropping goals in a series of thrilling clashes over the past two MLS seasons. The five-time MLS champion Galaxy haven’t matched LAFC’s immediate success over the past two years, but they went unbeaten in the first five editions of this rivalry before LAFC finally broke through last October with an emphatic 5-3 playoff victory.
But Ibrahimovic is gone, and his replacement, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, is still recovering from an injury that kept him out Saturday. The Galaxy went winless in their first five games this season, dropping into last place in the Western Conference and already adding an element of desperation to every game.
One of those games included the seventh edition of this rivalry, which was uniquely weird in its own right. The teams met in Florida last month at the MLS Is Back tournament, and LAFC demolished its rivals 6-2 even without Vela.
“Of course it will be a really strange year,” said Vela, who returned to LAFC’s lineup after sitting out the tournament in Florida last month for family reasons. “We don’t know exactly how we will finish the season, or even if we finish the season. We are ready for everything. We’re training hard because we feel we’re so close to get a trophy for our club. If the league is playing a full season, it will be a good opportunity for us, and we’ll be fighting and working for a trophy.”