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There Are No Angels in Soccer Fans' Heaven

L.A.'s Galaxy wins the league championship as backers watch on TVs at Staples Center.

October 21, 2002|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

Angels? What Angels?

Galaxy fans wept, whooped and embraced Sunday as their team won Major League Soccer's championship title in sudden death overtime, breaking a losing streak that brought them to the MLS Cup title match three times before to no avail.

In the shadow of baseball's championship, about 400 of the Los Angeles soccer team's die-hard fans had their own moment of glory. Festooned in Galaxy garb, chanting at dozens of television screens in English and Spanish, the fans gathered at Staples Center's Arena Club to cheer their young team through a nail-biting match thousands of miles away in Foxboro, Mass.

The World Series might as well have been happening in another galaxy. But amid the elation, there was still room for some ribbing from baseball's self-described "stepchildren."

"We don't have to wait for the Angels. Now we have a champion team," said Mauricio Mejia, 39, of Pasadena, who brought his two sons to Staples.

In the giddy post-game glory, Jose Gonzalez, 38, of Reseda broke out a can of white shoe polish and happily scrawled "GALAXY, 1-0, MLS CHAMPION" on the rear window of his Ford minivan.

"They keep forgetting about us," he said. "This is the biggest sport in the world."

The Galaxy faced off Sunday with the New England Revolution for the American domestic title. The win broke a hex that some compared with the unlucky streak that plagued the Anaheim Angels before that team's recent good fortune. Next, the Galaxy will vie on Oct. 24 for the other American cup -- the U.S. Open Cup final -- which it has won before.

At Staples, Cesar Garcia, a 34-year-old cabdriver from Studio City, paced in frustration as the scoreless game headed into overtime, perspiring in his Mauricio Cienfuegos jersey. When forward Carlos Ruiz kicked the overtime goal to win the game, tears flowed.

"I feel a lot of happiness, a lot of emotion. It's the first time out of four that they've managed to win," said Garcia, who like midfielder Cienfuegos grew up in El Salvador.

Many of the same fans had gathered here before dawn in June to watch Germany play in the World Cup. A self-described "underground subculture," they are a proud minority.

"We're not in the shadow of baseball," said Art Kempf of West Hollywood. "Baseball is not on my radar screen."

Kempf has traveled the world to view 60 U.S. soccer matches with his girlfriend, Joy Mallory -- a former Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso--since she got him hooked on the sport in 1994. Now, the couple views it as a form of global detente.

"We've partied with Iranians, Iraqis, Turks and Romanians," said Mallory, who embraced soccer in Africa as the only form of entertainment available to her. "Americans are so insular. The World Series is a U.S. baseball series and they call it the World Series. It's crazy."

There were also words of disdain for baseball's near-strike and sky-high salaries. "After awhile, you just get tired of all the other prima donna sports," said Sam Nishi, 40, of Los Angeles. "Here the players play for the love of the sport."

Nishi has been a volunteer since the beginning for the Galaxy, compiling game-day statistics. Nishi now gets paid "enough for gas" and has watched the team's fan base burgeon, albeit slowly. That will only improve when the Galaxy moves next season to the Home Depot National Training Center in Carson, he said.

"Three years ago, they wouldn't have been able to pull this off," Nishi said, gazing at an Arena Club packed with fans.

Given a choice, Nishi said, he would have chosen the midday Staples fan party over a trip to Edison Field. Others were equally proud of their beloved Angels, but peeved nevertheless at the World Series for hogging the party.

"I think the timing of all this is kind of stinky," said Claudia Hartwig, of Glendale, who along with her husband and two young daughters holds season Galaxy tickets and has traveled the country to support the team.

"We want to enjoy this, but a sports fan has to divide their loyalties.... I wish the MLS had selected a different weekend."

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