LOS ANGELES — Laurent Ciman’s free kick slipped past the wall and arced toward the net. Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei crouched for a simple save, but it inexplicably eluded his grasp.
Pandemonium broke out in Banc of California Stadium. Los Angeles FC’s final shot had just hit the net in the last minute to win the expansion team’s very first game in its beautiful new stadium.
Even for LAFC, a team with strong ties to the entertainment world, this Hollywood ending was almost too wild to be believed.
Ciman scored in the third minute of stoppage time, and LAFC opened the $350 million Banc of California Stadium with a stunning 1-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders on Sunday night.
“There was a lot of excitement, and everybody felt it,” Ciman said. “We really wanted to give it back to the fans. I realize the goalkeeper did a bit of a mistake, but you have to try, and I did.”
Tyler Miller made three saves to earn the shutout for LAFC, but Major League Soccer’s 23rd team seemed headed to its first scoreless draw before its Belgian captain lined up a free kick in the final minute of play.
Frei simply couldn’t hang on to the low, moving ball, and the first goal in stadium history electrified the sellout crowd of 22,000 mostly black-and-gold-clad fans, which serenaded LAFC throughout the evening.
“What a stadium, what a crowd,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “It’s nice not to have to inaugurate this wonderful place with a 0-0. So maybe somebody was looking down on us.”
The storybook almost had a duller ending. With an ownership group including Magic Johnson and Will Ferrell watching the club’s exciting young lineup, LAFC still failed on numerous second-half scoring chances before it managed to christen its sparkling arena properly.
The players gathered in front of the North End supporters’ section afterward, singing and dancing while black-and-gold smoke poured out of the joyous stands. It resembled a scene from a hallowed home of an established soccer power, not a debut game for a first-year team in a stadium that only existed on paper 18 months ago.
“Maybe the game was not the most fun to watch, but in the end, we won,” said Mexican forward Carlos Vela, LAFC’s first player. “We played really hard from the back, and we scored in the last minute. Everybody was enjoying it.”
Even before Ciman’s theatrics, the evening was a celebration of the latest milestone in the 3 1/2-year journey of LAFC, which gained MLS admission as an expansion franchise in late 2014 and steadily built a club with global ambitions.
A diverse ownership group including Asian billionaires and American entertainers and sports celebrities built a privately funded stadium and a suburban training facility while putting together a roster with plans for immediate trophy contention.
LAFC built Banc of California Stadium on the site of the demolished Los Angeles Sports Arena on Figueroa Street just south of downtown, seeking to form a bond with the urban heart of the U.S.’ second-largest city. The stadium has been widely praised for its size, shape and attention to detail, and it was filled with fans already eager to support a local team other than the suburban LA Galaxy, the five-time MLS champions.
Although LAFC is less than two months into its debut season, the club has already grabbed its city’s attention in remarkable fashion. While many fans of the defunct Chivas USA switched their allegiance to LAFC, many more fans have taken up the club as a symbol of LA’s downtown rebirth — and a stadium that feels like a big party helps, too.
Several hours before kickoff, thousands of fans gathered in Exposition Park outside the stadium and next-door to the venerable Coliseum. The stands began to fill two hours before the game, with 3,252 or so black-clad fans filling the North End supporters’ section, which has standing rails and its own concourse bar.
During pregame festivities that included skydivers and an enormous tifo, Ferrell took the field with a falcon that will fly around the stadium before games. Fans including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti crowded into the stands for the opening kickoff.
A mere 93 minutes later, they got a tremendous payoff.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber attended the opener with a group of dignitaries that included Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis, a former MLS executive.
“It’s everything that we hoped it would be, and I think it’s everything that our league needed,” Garber said. “The water level keeps getting raised. The price of poker is going up a little bit. I’m sure (the expansion club in) Miami will have a great building. In June, (D.C. United’s) Audi Field will open. It’s a brick by brick process. We’re building a sport from the bottom up.”
Bradley’s new team won four of its first six games while starting the season on the road in impressive style, scoring 17 goals and living up to the owners’ desire for an attacking, exciting style of play. LAFC is still building chemistry and defensive organization, but its stadium is fully built and ready for a long season ahead.
“All the people were waiting for this moment,” Vela said. “It was a great day.”