For Galaxy, Coachella Valley offers perfect MLS preseason hub

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Major League Soccer had a problem.

With clubs spread all over the country, scheduling quality preseason matches was proving to be a problem. If a team stayed home during training camp, it would be limited to playing college teams, lower-tier opponents or holding intrasquad scrimmages. Journeying to play against MLS rivals, on the other hand, would add to what is already one of the most arduous and fatiguing travel schedules of any first-division league in the world.

“I think back to a preseason in Toronto, where you can’t really stay in Toronto,” said Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, who managed in Canada for parts of seven seasons. “We flew to Los Angeles to do the first part, then we went back to Toronto, then we went to Mexico City to do a part, then we came back, and then we went somewhere else to start our season.

“By the time you’re done with that, you’ve already traveled 8,000 miles.”

Exhausted before the regular season even started Toronto, the reigning MLS champion, went 10-18-6 in 2018, its worst finish in six years. So this winter, like the two that preceded it, Vanney’s Galaxy team will play a half-dozen MLS opponents while traveling just 260 miles. By bus.

And for that he can thank Tom Braun, the club’s president of business operations, and Dan Beckerman, CEO of the Galaxy’s parent company AEG, who came up with the idea for a preseason competition in the desert east of Palm Springs.

In just three years the event has grown from a six-team, 12-game tournament played behind closed doors to one that will kick off Wednesday with 12 MLS clubs, two from the USL Championship and four from the NWSL. And with the doors now open to fans, attendance is expected to top 28,000 over seven match days.

Players run on a soccer field in the Coachella Valley.

The Coachella Valley offers a perfect setting for MLS teams looking to prepare for the upcoming season.

(Kyle McCune / L.A. Galaxy)

“What we offer the clubs is a really meaningful event,” Braun said. “Instead of flying around trying to piece together competitive matches, we’re giving you the opportunity to come to a great setting, be around some of your competitors [and] have some really nice grass fields.”

In fact the Coachella Valley Invitational has proven so successful it’s a wonder no one thought of it earlier. For AEG, a global sports and entertainment presenter, it was a no-brainer since Goldenvoice, an AEG subsidiary, has for years put on the enormously successful Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals at the sprawling 1,000-acre Empire Polo Club in Indio. All Braun had to do was get someone to manicure the grass — “horses are heavy and they create divots,” he said — and send out invitations.

Shaun Ilten, the groundskeeper at Dignity Health Sports Park, joined with Goldenvoice to take care of the first job, preparing two private pitches for each team. AEG also brought in gym equipment, ice baths, goals, benches and just about anything else a soccer team would need to train.

As for the invitations, the tournament sold itself, with teams lining up to a spot in the field before the competition had even been announced.

“Coachella is not a flight, it’s a drive,” said LAFC general manager John Thorrington, whose team has played in the tournament from the start. “And yeah, it’s grown to be a really good tournament.”

But there’s more to it than that. Because players are sequestered in hotels, away from their families, the tournament gives them time to bond. Defender Ryan Hollingshead said the chemistry LAFC built in Coachella in 2022 was a big reason why the team won both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup that season.

“It gives us five, six days. And we’ve seen particularly in the past two years, the group really came together,” Thorrington said. “We’re focused and concentrated on building things. It gives the coaches more time with the players to get to know each other.”

For many MLS clubs the tournament has replaced the Desert Showcase, a preseason competition launched in Tucson in 2011 that grew to include 10 teams by 2018. But last year, because of the AEG event, just two MLS clubs — the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake — traveled to Tucson.

Galaxy forward Dejan Joveljic signs autographs before a preseason match against the New York Red Bulls.

Galaxy forward Dejan Joveljic signs autographs before a preseason match against the New York Red Bulls in the Coachella Valley.

(Robert Mora / L.A. Galaxy)

The Fire will play in Coachella this year, leaving the Arizona tournament, now called the 2024 Desert Friendlies, to soldier on with a field made up primarily of second- and third-division teams.

“The owner of the L.A. Galaxy decided to do an event at Coachella, a place that he owns and can sort of dictate what goes on there,” FC Tucson President Jon Pearlman told Tucson’s Channel 13 News. “We have to pivot.”

Braun likens his tournament to baseball’s spring training, with teams from all over the country, gathering in the same place and playing in a small venue and a more relaxed environment, allowing players and fans to interact.

“It was a really cool event where there was really amazing engagement that you just can’t get in a regular-season game,” he said of the 2023 tournament. “Being so close to the action is really special.”

What the tournament hasn’t produced yet is a profit. But Braun believes that will change.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a losing proposition cost-wise, because it’s a very big opportunity for AEG to make this a successful event,” Braun said. “Leaning into the fact that this is a partnership with other AEG properties allows us to make this a successful event. Between ticket sales and sponsorship, this very much has an opportunity to be a money-maker.”



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