So much about Banc of California's inaugural match started out perfectly, from the trademark sunny southern California weather and the pristine grass pitch, to the sold-out crowd dressed in black and gold. All that was missing was the perfect finish to cap the night. As much as many of us have been reminded recently that even the biggest blockbuster doesn't necessarily have to have a happy ending, Los Angeles FC's home debut just felt like it deserved one.
Laurent Ciman helped deliver it, sending a rocket of a free kick directly at the normally safe hands of Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Ciman hit the shot with so much force that the ball's movement fooled Frei just enough to beat him, bouncing off the keeper's chest and into the net for the thrilling victory the expansion team's fans had hoped for when they walked into their new $350 million stadium for the first time.
"It's special," LAFC coach Bob Bradley said after the late win. "What a stadium. Our fans, it's so loud the whole game. 0-0 wasn't the way to begin, so that's pretty cool."
As far as scripts go, the one for Sunday's match was a compelling one. The "bad guys" — in this case the Seattle Sounders — put the pressure on LAFC and created the better chances early in the match. Sounders rookie Alex Roldan looked like he would be the player to score the first goal at Banc of California Stadium, but Steven Beitashour made the first of two potential match-saving plays on the night, heading Roldan's chance off the line.
LAFC appeared to suffer from some stadium-opening jitters, lacking the sharpness and lightning-fast counter that punished opposing defenses in the team's first six matches. Seattle did well to keep Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi relatively quiet, while Marco Urena failed to capitalize on a handful of looks throughout the match.
It was up to LAFC's defense to keep the special night from turning sour. Ciman and Walker Zimmerman held their own in the middle, battling with the physical Will Bruin, while also keeping tabs on the ever-dangerous Clint Dempsey. Nicolas Lodeiro was particularly quiet on the night, which eventually limited Seattle's chances in the second half.
LAFC's defense stepped up again in the 57th minute when Beitashour raced in to tackle the ball away from Dempsey, who was in front of goal ready to slip a shot past Tyler Miller, only to see a perfect challenge deny him.
The home attack may not have brought the goals in regulation, but that didn't stop the home fans from bringing the energy for the entire match, and it was that energy that helped LAFC continue to push for a late winner. Seattle came close once more when Gustav Svensson pounced on a spilled Miler catch only to have his shot cleared off the line by Zimmerman.
Ciman did the rest. Vela drew a late free kick that gave the Belgian defender a clear look at his target. Frei set up a Sounders wall to cover the left half of the goal mouth and he stood confidently in the right half, with nothing in between him and Ciman but 30 yards of grass. Ciman didn't bother with trying to curl a shot around or over the wall. He instead ran up and belted a right-footed shot at Frei hit so hard that it knuckled toward the ground as it reached the Seattle goal, leading the goalkeeper to misjudge the movement and watch helplessly as the ball bounced off his hands and into the net.
Bradley would probably have loved a much less stressful stadium opener, one with plenty of LAFC goals and fewer moments when the fear of a failed home debut was palpable. You could tell the LAFC boss was more than fine with the final outcome though, as the normally stoic coach did his best to contain an ear-to-ear grin during the post-match celebrations.
LAFC will have Sunday night to celebrate its homecoming, but Bradley will soon gather his players to let them know that, as thrilling as it was to pull out the late win, the overall performance at home will need to get better. The pressure and pomp associated with opening a new stadium — and the nerves that were clearly generated — are now in the rearview mirror, and up ahead are tough home games against the likes of FC Dallas and New York City FC. It's time for the newest team in MLS to show that it's worthy of the incredible new stadium it opened, and capable of regularly delivering happy endings for the home fans like it did on Sunday.