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LAFC celebrates fan support as inaugural home season comes to an end

LOS ANGELES — It’s been 176 days since soccer was first played on the grass at Banc of California stadium.

At the time, the future felt indestructible. The team was 5-1, that lone loss coming at the hands of a lion, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and his newly-christened home with the Los Angeles Galaxy. There was a magic to the team, a sense of breathless excitement that built with each impending second counting down to the first kick off.

The North End glimmered with sweat and beer and potential, still shaky on its chants, but rowdy as always. When captain Laurent Ciman sent a free kick sweetly sailing into the net in the 75th minute, the stadium was an explosion of noise, but mostly of excitement. The team was here, and it delivered on a promise years in the making.

“From the beginning, we felt this connection with the fans,” head coach Bob Bradley said. “They could feel that the team, the stadium, the community was theirs.”

But promising starts can quickly cave, giving way to losing streaks and scoring droughts. LAFC suffered a string of five games without a win and endured the blow of two draws and a loss in three iterations of El Tráfico. It lost Ciman, too, when the 33-year-old captain moved home to play in Belgium.

Yet the fledgling club fought on. Carlos Vela shouldered the captain’s band and led the team in goals and assists. The team quietly bagged records and victories — most double-digit scorers for an expansion team, championships at the youth academy level, a clinched playoff berth with weeks left in regular season play.

And still, the feeling of Banc of California stadium remains the same — hopeful, vibrant, proud. In its inaugural year, the LAFC fanbase has held onto that magic from beginning to end.

“To have this fan support quickly, in one season, become the class of the league … it’s beyond belief,” Vela said.

The club’s flurry of fan support was represented in every way. Crowds sold out Banc of California time and again, with the stadium ranking No. 8 in total attendance in MLS, despite playing in a stadium with thousands of seats less than other teams, such as Atlanta United. LAFC fans bought merchandise in droves — Vela’s jersey was the second-most sold in the league, only coming behind that of Ibrahimovic. The 3,252 fans who populated the North End quickly gained a reputation of their own, setting a tone as a supporters section.

It helped that at home, LAFC fans could assume success, or at least the absence of defeat. The team won 12 of the 17 matches played on its home turf and dropped only one home game in its first season, a stunning 2-0 loss to Sporting KC in August. But for the team, that loyalty feels hard-fought and well-earned. The players of LAFC feel that no matter what, even in a torrential downpour or down by two points, their fans will have their back.

“They were there for us and supporting us no matter what happens,” defender Jordan Harvey said. “It’s a key component to our team and the success that we’ve had so far.”

This was the club’s goal from the start. Los Angeles is a city with too many sports teams. In a city that’s home to LeBron James, that is playing host to its second-straight World Series, that will soon be the site of an Olympic Games, it’s hard to imagine carving out a space for a new team. Yet LAFC faced this challenge and conquered it, embedding itself in a downtown hungry for soccer.

This, perhaps, was the greatest victory of the club’s first season in the MLS. Winning records and playoff berths are signs of success, but a passionate fan base goes even further in entrenching a team in its new city. And the roar of the crowd in Banc of California stadium — in a loss or a draw or a rainstorm — is a strong sign that LAFC is here to stay.

“It’s something special,” Bradley said. “When we look into the stands at Banc of California stadium, we know that we are doing something together with the community of Los Angeles.”

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