By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
When I was a kid, soccer seemed like an entirely foreign sport – tall, slim European guys with headbands endlessly running back and forth behind a ball and rarely actually scoring any points.
In trying to describe the atmosphere at a match in his home country, a friend from Portugal likened it to a pep rally and shouting match, with a game taking place in the middle.
Generations of AYSO players later, the “beautiful game” has finally established a foothold (pun completely intended) in the U.S., and there are plenty of reasons to cite Los Angeles as the premier American soccer town.
Football (as most of the world calls it) had an uneven history in the USA: a couple of failed pro leagues and passing interest gaining momentum only once every four years with the World Cup. When Major League Soccer kicked off in 1996, there was understandably a fair amount of skepticism.
Then, something surprising happened. Fans showed up. The matches were exciting. They told more fans. Top-tier players and coaches began to take notice. Along came 2007, and a development out of left field that shocked the football world.
David Beckham, the British superstar midfielder, announced he was leaving Real Madrid — regarded by many as the greatest professional club in the history of the game — to join the L.A. Galaxy in the American MLS.
The L.A. what? Surely not. When announced, Real Madrid head coach Fabio Capello vehemently insisted Beckham would never play again for his team, despite the star still being under contract for the remainder of the current season.
To be fair, Beckham was 32 at the time, and widely considered to be past his prime. It seemed he was following in the steps of other global stars who agreed to take a spot — and a paycheck — in the U.S. to play out their viable days on the field, including the great Pele, who starred for the L.A. Aztecs of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s.
With his good looks, pop star wife and global celebrity, Beckham seems poised to bring a bit of much-needed glamor to a league still solidifying its bearings. He never delivered earth-shattering numbers – did anyone ever really expect as much? – but the impact was clear. Luxury boxes sold out, replica jerseys flew off store shelves, and every other MLS team now had a clear road map to marrying marketing with the product on the field.
Meanwhile, the women’s game was developing by leaps and bounds. Brandi Chastain tearing off her jersey in victorious celebration at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Pasadena put an exclamation point on Title IX, the 1972 landmark law that facilitated equal development of sports programs for women and girls.
By the time the Homare Sawa-led “Nadeshiko” – Japan’s national team – defeated powerhouse Team USA in a spectacularly exciting final at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, football had at long last started to come of age in America, with the female teams even eclipsing the popularity of the men.
When the Los Angeles Football Club opened its inaugural season in 2018 at a sparkling new venue next to the L.A. Coliseum, a long-simmering thirst for hometown football was only too ready to be quenched. The game has never been more popular in this country, and the fans at Banc of California Stadium are arguably the most ardent in all of the U.S.
“Sharing my story, showing how I embrace my heritage, it’s one way to let people take notice and hopefully, there will be a lot of future me’s coming along,” said Kellyn Acosta after a training session at Cal State L.A. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)
LAFC boasts international stars including Carlos Vela and – as of the writing of this article – have added Wales captain Gareth Bale. In January, the team signed defensive midfielder Kellyn Acosta, a native of Texas and member of the U.S. national team. The 23-year-old was a game-changer in three-plus seasons for Colorado, scoring a goal that propelled the Rapids into the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
When this year’s Nisei Week Grand Parade rolls through the streets of Little Tokyo next month, Acosta will be taking on a different role – that of honorary marshal.
“I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s a new opportunity for me, so I’m definitely grateful to be invited,” said Acosta, following a team workout at LAFC’s training facility on the campus of Cal State L.A. “It’s a huge thing, so I can’t wait for August.”
His Japanese father was born in Okinawa and was given the surname Acosta from his Mexican step-father. The soccer standout said he is quickly becoming familiar with the local Japanese American community and has received a warm welcome from even those who haven’t been huge fans of the game.
“Being here, getting to know the community and talking with people, the game is growing tremendously, especially among Asian Americans. I hope the trajectory continues upward,” he explained.
“Sharing my story, showing how I embrace my heritage, it’s one way to let people take notice and hopefully, there will be a lot of future me’s coming along.”
Local football enthusiasm has enjoyed another resounding splash this year, as the new Angel City FC of the fledgling National Women’s Soccer League kicked off its inaugural season in April. The team, with an ownership that includes Chastain, Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, Billy Jean King, Candace Parker, Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, played to a full-capacity crowd in their home opener in Banc of California Stadium.
The Player of the Match for that first-ever game was 21-year-old ACFC forward Jun Endo, a member of Japan’s Olympic and World Cup squads who never imagined such a rousing response for a brand new women’s club.
“I’ve never played in a situation or an environment like this where the fans are cheering for me so loudly. I’m very grateful and thankful,” Endo said after a May 29 match against NY/NJ Gotham FC. “At the same time, I’m not quite used to it yet. I hope to use this as encouragement and motivation to keep playing.”
Endo is clearly a fan favorite with the ACFC faithful. Supporters show up with Japanese flags, homemade signs and banners, and are elated when she comes to the sidelines after a match to sign autographs or take selfies.
“So far, I am having a lot of fun in this league,” she explained. “Even with the other teams, the players are very good with their feet and they have a lot of personality. I knew that coming in, and it’s been really fun, so I hope to improve and have even more fun.”
After a decade without women’s professional soccer in California – the eight-team Women’s United Soccer Association folded after only three seasons in 2003 – Angel City and San Diego are the newest clubs in the NWSL, both in their first season.
Gotham FC, who share the same New Jersey arena that is home to the New York Red Bulls, boasts a pair of players who have served on Japan’s national team. Veteran forward Nahomi Kawasumi said she was buoyed by the overwhelming response to women’s football in Los Angeles, comparing it to the love in soccer-crazed Europe.
“Today at the stadium was really amazing, to see this kind of support, even for a brand-new team,” Kawasaki said. “Even though today wasn’t the home opener, so many fans came out to see the team and cheer for them.”
Kawasumi, 36, said she could feel the passion that has grown in America for football, when Hamm was featured on the stadium jumbotron and the crowd erupted in cheers.
“The American team has been so strong for quite some time now, that’s why fans come,” she explained, recalling the rivalry when she played for the Nadeshiko. “In Japan, we were able to parlay the World Cup victory into more popularity for women’s soccer, but if the team doesn’t do well, the support wanes.”
Kawasumi expressed pride in seeing other Japanese players in the league and was impressed in how well Endo has assimilated into her new team, despite being on the roster for only a few months.
“Jun knows her strengths and already fits well, that’s good to see. She’s being trusted with important plays, like taking corner kicks.”
Gotham FC also features 28-year-old forward Kumi Yokoyama, currently a member of Japan’s national squad.
Many of the fans have embedded themselves into the respective cultures of L.A. newest football clubs, not only attending games but becoming integral parts of their support bases.
Walter Nishinaka has been well-known around Little Tokyo since his early youth, and for years had played a major role in Nisei Week events including the Grand Parade and the annual Baby Show.
When LAFC announced its formation, Nishinaka – who admits to not having been a huge soccer fan previously – felt it was an opportunity to join a growing community filled with positive energy. Utilizing his years of taiko experience, he is now the drum director for the “3252,” LAFC’s official supporters’ union.
“LAFC made it clear they wanted to build a community around the club,” Nishinaka explained. “With most teams anywhere in the U.S., the team is the team and the fans are the fans, but with LAFC we (the 3252) and the club work really close together on a lot of things, and they support us in things we want.”
The fan group’s name is derived from the number of seats in the supporter section at the stadium. Moreover, when the digits are added together – 3+2+5+2 – it adds up to 12, signifying an inspirational extra teammate for the 11-man squad on the pitch.
Nishinaka said he has struck up a friendship with Acosta, and that the star’s presence and dedication will serve to attract more Japanese Angelenos to football.
“LAFC gave me an opportunity to learn and grow with the club, and when they signed a JA player, I feel that anytime he takes the field, we all take the field.”
He also had high praise for Endo, describing her as an amazing influence on boys and girls playing the sport who gives a complete effort every minute of every match.
For his part, Acosta is sold on the idea that L.A. can be a two-team town for football … or maybe three.
“Definitely, for both MLS teams in L.A. What the Galaxy’s doing, what we’re doing, the soccer community is huge here,” he said. “I didn’t know until I actually started living here and experienced it, but it’s awesome to see how the sport has evolved and the growth of soccer here. It’s the same with ACFC; they’re doing a great job building the community and the game environment. Of course, teammates giving great performance on the field helps, and the result is enjoyable and hopefully, we’ll be healthy, positive role models for the younger generation.”