Brenda Cruz has never missed an LAFC home game.
She’s shown up at Banc of California Stadium for three seasons in punishing heat, gentle rain, bone-chilling cold and everything in between. But Saturday she’ll stay away because of a virus.
“This is going to be very strange,” she said. “It’s sad.”
MLS is restarting its regular season in local markets after suspending play in March due to COVID-19. And with public gatherings banned in Southern California, LAFC’s game with the Galaxy will be played in an empty stadium.
If LAFC’s fans won’t be seen, though, they will be heard. The team invited hundreds — many from the hard-core 3252 supporters group — to videoconference sessions to record their voices for use during the game in the hopes of re-creating the Banc’s unique atmosphere, one that has helped LAFC to the best home record in MLS since 2018.
“It’s important to not only deliver some sense of normalcy to our match days, but really to give our players some of that home-field experience,” said Al Raitt, LAFC’s director of match day presentation. “They’re used to having constant support throughout the match, whether that’s music, whether that’s chants, whether that’s hype videos, replays on the big board, anything that makes the stadium feel like more than a preseason match.
“We can never match exactly what the 3252 brings on a match day. But we’re going to try.”
Raitt and his staff have gathered ambient sound from sold-out games that will play during Saturday’s match. That will be supplemented with a playlist of chants and tifos from the 3252, a socially distanced falcon flight and crowd reactions to moments of excitement and disappointment such as a goal, a shot that just misses or a yellow card.
“We can put in some groans, some unhappy sounds to kind of mimic that environment,” Raitt said. “It feels more authentic than just having chants over everything, even when a goal’s scored.”
There will even be a 30-minute virtual tailgate party on the LAFC mobile app.
Atmosphere is generally a given for a neighborhood matchup like Saturday’s El Tráfico, which has already grown into the most passionate pro sports rivalry in Southern California. But the teams come into this renewal heading in different directions. LAFC (2-0-3) is unbeaten and will be buoyed by the return of league MVP Carlos Vela after a five-month absence. The winless Galaxy (0-3-2), off to the worst start in franchise history, will be without striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who has a torn calf.
Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said an empty stadium could erase some of LAFC’s advantage.
“Without fans it’s definitely an interesting experience. [In] this rivalry, the fans play a part,” he said. Without them “it’s kind of a fair game.”
To keep the field from leveling, Raitt’s also recorded fans calling out players’ names, which will allow him to re-create the call-and-response way LAFC introduces its starting line and the way it uses the crowd to announce goal scorers. The supporters, he found, were eager to do their part.
“We screamed it. We had to have this enthusiasm,” said Chris Moore, 51, who joined his fiancée Rose Prewitt, 49, and 10 others in yelling the names of the entire LAFC roster into their computers until they were hoarse.
The audience for the performance will be a relatively small one, since public health authorities have limited the number of people allowed inside the Banc to 300, including players, coaches, officials, journalists and game-day staff. Attendance was similarly limited during the MLS Is Back tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, where games were played on fields generally used for age-group tournaments.
Raitt said the quality of play in Florida often matched the humble surroundings.
“The environment wasn’t what they’re used to,” he said of the players. “It wasn’t the same passion. So we have to help that along by delivering some of this atmosphere back to the players.”
Other sports have done the same. The Dodgers have placed several thousand cardboard fans in seats and play canned crowd noise and chants over their PA system. But that hasn’t always worked. In a recent game, Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling struck out a batter to get out of jam and was already back in the dugout before an audio engineer got the fake crowd to cheer.
In their effort to project a sense of normalcy, the Angels do everything but take tickets, running through their usual pregame hype videos, playing the national anthem and turning up the volume of the piped-in crowd noise whenever a player hits a home run. But the reaction can be unnerving since the stands are empty.
“Whenever you look at the [stands] and you don’t see supporters there, it’s strange,” said LAFC coach Bob Bradley, who has been in empty stadiums before. “The rest, in terms of sound, we haven’t experienced that yet. So it’s a hard question to answer whether or not that type of crowd noise is better.”
For Cruz, a 28-year-old production assistant from Culver City, it’s better than nothing.
“We’ll be there in spirit,” said Cruz, who will be straining to hear her voice in the din of Saturday’s TV broadcast. “Deep down, as cheesy as it sounds, in our hearts we’ll be together.”