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High Marks Resonate From Every Corner

June 08, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The fans who sit in the far corner at Galaxy games, the ones who call themselves the "Riot Squad," are not exactly the sentimental type.

Among other things, they seem to delight in making rude gestures at opposing players and, for good measure, taking snapshots of each other making rude gestures.

But Saturday was downright emotional for them, the inaugural game in the new soccer stadium at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

"It's a good feeling for a soccer fan," said Eddie Garcia, one of the fan club's leaders. "This is our home."

The stadium is a rarity in this country, more intimate than the standard football and baseball behemoths, built specifically for the game.

As such, it got high marks from a sellout crowd of 27,000, which had more to cheer about than only the Galaxy's 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids.

Fans in the highest and cheapest seats commented on how well they could see the new, green pitch.

The fortunate ones inside 42 luxury suites marveled at black-aproned waiters who came by with a lavish desert cart.

An hour before game time, season-ticket holders Don Sovie and Bruce Tatarian loaded their plates with shrimp and scallops at an upscale restaurant that overlooks the field.

"Why do we even have to go to our seats?" Sovie asked.

Such opulence -- unusual for a sport that usually plays the role of stepchild -- came with higher ticket prices. The least-expensive seats for Saturday's game were $22, a significant increase from $13 at the Galaxy's old home, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

As is often the case with modern sports, money had much to do with the genesis of this facility.

By building and owning its own field, the Galaxy could generate more revenue streams, which is business-speak for keeping all the money from parking, food and merchandise sales.

With all those $3.75 hot dogs and $6.75 beers being sold at the snack bars, management hopes to turn the Galaxy into a profitable venture.

A smaller stadium also makes it possible for the team to sell out games. Theoretically, fans who worry about getting shut out are more willing to buy season seats or, at least, buy their tickets in advance.

"At first, people were sketchy about the money," said Garcia, who saw the price of his season seats rise from $230 to $510.

He and his fellow club members swallowed the increase, accounting for 16 rows that included numerous season-ticket holders, and seemed satisfied on Saturday.

Up near the highest row, Gus Ortiz said he did not mind paying extra to be closer to the action. "I can see well," he said. "Look."

Team executives have insisted that finances are only part of the equation.

Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG, has talked about courting an historically reluctant nation, creating an ambience so that fans "would finally begin to understand the fascination of this sport."

Saturday was a good first step.

The crowd roared and chanted when the legendary Pele jogged to midfield for a pregame ceremony. People took photographs of each other in the stands to mark the occasion.

Susan Ward Raitano said she fell in love with soccer last fall when her husband, Art, took her to an Arsenal game in London. "All the fans chanting and cheering," she recalled.

The Home Depot Center gave her a comparable feeling with its Teflon-coated canopies designed to deflect crowd noise back down to the turf.

"In the Rose Bowl you could put 20,000 fans and it looked empty," her husband said. "Well, this is a soccer stadium."

Players noticed.

Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones said he couldn't help but hear fans who yelled at him. Colorado players said crowd noise played a role in their defeat.

The acoustics were such that the Riot Squad had problems with their trademark chants running up against the banging of buks and sogos, traditional Korean instruments, by an adjacent group that had come from Koreatown to root for Galaxy defender Hong Myung-Bo.

The groups eventually agreed to take turns. It was only a small glitch, the kind that people run across when they move into a new house.

The truly important thing, Garcia said, was beneath their feet.

"There's concrete. There's brick," he said. "It's here to stay ... this is ours."

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