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Leagues Cup friendlies showing LA is a soccer market

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Dejan Joveljic, left, celebrates his goal with forward Nick DePuy during the first half of a Leagues Cup match against Chivas Wednesday, Aug.  3, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Galaxy forward Dejan Joveljic, left, celebrates his goal with forward Nick DePuy during the first half of a Leagues Cup match against Chivas on Wednesday at SoFi Stadium. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

As construction workers were putting the finishing touches on SoFi Stadium 2½ years ago, promoters were nearing an agreement to make a Barcelona-Real Madrid game one of the first sporting events to be held at the venue.

The Mexican national team asked if they could play there next.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out live crowds at sports and entertainment events for more than a year. SoFi has played host to two NFL regular seasons, a Super Bowl and concerts by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Los Bukis since then.

But it wasn’t until Wednesday that soccer finally got in the door of the $5.5-billion stadium, with the Galaxy beating Chivas of Guadalajara 2-0 in the first game of the Leagues Cup Showcase on goals from Dejan Joveljic and teenager Jonathan Pérez. LAFC played Mexico City’s Club América in the second game.

Three more similar showcases will be played next month in Nashville, Salt Lake City and Cincinnati, leading to next summer’s League Cup, a month-long tournament featuring all 47 Liga MX and MLS teams.

Organizers said attendance for the exhibition doubleheader was a sellout, with more than 70,000 tickets distributed. Last weekend LAFC, Angel City of the NWSL and the second-division Orange County Soccer Club all played before sold-out stadiums while an international friendly between Juventus and Real Madrid filled the Rose Bowl. Add those totals to Wednesday’s crowd and club soccer has drawn more than 212,000 fans to four Southern California venues in the last six days.

“It shows what Los Angeles is as a soccer market,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said. “As a Major League Soccer market, as an NWSL market, as a market for the Women’s World Cup, as a market for a men’s World Cup.”

Speaking of the World Cup, Klein is also co-chair for the local organizing committee for the 2026 tournament, which convinced FIFA to select SoFi as one of 16 venues for that competition. But Wednesday’s friendlies, he said, were not a trial run for the World Cup.

“This is an event that’s taking place in their building,” he said. “It shows you what soccer can look like in SoFi. It’s soccer in the venue.”

A World Cup in the venue will require a few alterations.

FIFA requires World Cup games to be played on a natural surface, for example, so a grass carpet was laid over SoFi’s artificial field Wednesday. But the width of the field, at 68¾ yards, according to the organizers, was a bit narrow for a World Cup game. That can be remedied by removing demountable field-level seats in the four corners of the pitch, something that didn’t happen Wednesday.

“There’s still some work that needs to be done,” Klein said. “The system is in there for them to be able to do that. But it is very different hosting what we host[ed] and hosting a World Cup.”

If the Leagues Cup Showcase wasn’t intended to be a World Cup dress rehearsal, it was meant to highlight the growing partnership between MLS and the Liga MX, whose players will also square off for a second straight summer in an all-star game next week in Minneapolis.

“We thought that it was a good idea to generate these showcases in order to send the message to the fans, and obviously to the market, that we’re very strong together,” Liga MX President Mikel Arriola said Wednesday. “Today is very important to underline that statement because we’re playing soccer for the first time in SoFi Stadium, right? The most valuable sports property in the world.

“MLS and Liga MX jointly have the power to play in full stadiums of the NFL. That’s a great example.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.