For the Love of the Game: Chatting with the LAFC Tigers Supporters Group

Behind every great football team is just as great a set of fans. The LAFC Tigers are one of the supporters’ groups behind Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) and are the first Korean supporters group in Major League Soccer. One of our writers, Aimée Kwan, sits down with two of their members - Su Jin Lee and Sam Ko - to talk about the Tigers, LA football culture and why they chose the Black and Gold over the Galaxy.
Photo courtesy of LAFC and the LAFC Tigers.
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For the Love of the Game: Chatting with the LAFC Tigers Supporters Group
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers

Aimée, &ASIAN: Thank you so much for talking to us today! Do you both want to introduce yourself to everyone?

Sam: My name is Sam. I'm from LA (Los Angeles), and President of the Tigers Supporters Group.

Su Jin: I'm Su Jin and I'm also in LA. I’m probably like the mama bear to the Tigers right now since I was there from the beginning. I run a lot of the secretarial admin stuff, but also make sure everybody stays on their toes. I'm a big Chelsea fan! I don't know where your allegiances lie, so…

Aimée: I'm not gonna lie, I was born and bred Manchester United.

Sam: Yeah!

Aimée: My family hails from across East and South East Asia and obviously United have a massive presence there. So I feel I came out of the womb supporting United.

Su Jin: That's amazing. Honestly, that's awesome.

Aimée: Have you ever had a chance to visit Stamford Bridge?

Su Jin: I've gone a lot. 2016 was probably my first time...  I used to go once or twice a year and because of COVID I haven't gotten my fix.

Aimée: How would you describe the formation of the Tigers and how that came about?

Su Jin: Especially when it comes to sports, I think especially in LA, there's really no identity when it comes to Korean supporters or Korean American supporters.

We have so many different types of sports. We have the Dodgers, we have the Lakers and everyone kind of follows them. But when it comes to soccer/football, I don't think that Koreans really have an identity here.

So when the idea came about to start a supporters group, for me, being a football supporter, I was just like, “Heck yes, let me just get into it!” What it became probably surpassed a lot of my own expectations. We’re really rooted in community. That's something I really pride myself on, especially with the Tigers.

I think we're such a family oriented group... that's the most important part about football, bar the results. It's being together, supporting something that you guys have in common, it just brings everybody closer. So that, to me, is the root of everything.

Aimée: When it comes to football culture in Europe or areas of South America, it's really famous around the world. If someone mentions football culture in LA, especially if you’re not American, people might not really know what that means. How would you describe it?

Su Jin: I think football culture in general, for Americans, it's so new… people try to say, “Oh, you're just trying to copy so and so,” or “You're just trying to make it like this and that.” I think that's really unfair. In the United States, it's capable of growing and it's still in its infancy. So I think the focus is trying to make it our own, instead of trying to be like everybody else.

I think what makes Los Angeles so great is just the diversity. If you've come to one of our games, just looking at the supporter section, it's a mix of everything and everybody, and I think that's what makes us so unique.

So I hope that you can come to a game one day, so we can show you what this is. It's really hard to say it in words, you just have to be there.

Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers

Sam: The first thing is the large Hispanic, Mexican, Salvadorian community out here that has a huge influence on how we support [football] and, in all honesty, I love it.

A conversation I had with a friend that goes to the World Cup often: he says his favourite matches are always the Mexico matches, because regardless of [whether they] win or lose, if you're just judging by looking at the fans, you'll never know the result of the match...

I think the main differences, of course, from Europeans is that you guys have such a long, rich history of, “This is how things are done.. this is what it is, and this is what it was, and this is what it's become.” But, you know, from somewhere like LA… it's kind of forming some, you know, forming what we already know. Who we are from all the European fans, all the Mexican fans and all these different influences coming and sitting at the table. I'm sure that that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, because it's like, “Oh, you guys are just picking and choosing things you like,” and we're like, “Yeah, like this is this is a new culture.”

This is a new community and we're able to do that and you can hate the player, but don’t hate the game.

Aimée: For sure - and I was curious about whether the football culture in Korea has also influenced you guys as well, just like how in the UK there are great cricket influences in supporter culture from Indian and Pakistani communities because of how popular the sport is in India and Pakistan.

Sam: Yeah, though, in Korea, football is still more of a secondary sport. I think the top sport in Korea is baseball. I believe another thing that happens in Korea is a clash between supporter culture and regular fans.

Su Jin: I was just gonna say that, for us, I think something we do take influence from is how crazy Koreans go during the World Cup. That passion is something that we would love to translate even more here.

I think when it comes to national teams, there's a bit of national pride that comes into play. England is a good example of that, right? So in that same vein, I hope that some of that passion is something that we can bring into the supportive culture here. Just the songs, the chants and things like that. That's something that we're definitely tried to incorporate within our own group.

Aimée: How does that also connect to the community work you guys do?

Su Jin: So a big thing for us is that we have a community - Koreatown here. It's pretty much where a lot of us met. Even prior to LAFC. It's how we really know each other. For us, one of the main things when it came to creating a supporter group was that we could give back to our communities.

So we've been working closely with one organisation called Koreatown Youth + Community Centre (KYCC). They kind of mentor the youth, and they do things such as planting trees within the community. So that's something that we like to volunteer [for], because I think outreaches sometimes are the best way to bring people in, people that might not know about something that's already in their city.

Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers

Prior to the pandemic, we were also doing turkey drives and gift bags during the holidays, or back to school supplies. We also did some work with a group called Cape Town for All That Gives, things that are needed by the homeless community in Cape Town. Women's hygiene products and whatnot.

The cool thing is that we collaborate with all the different other groups as well, in the 3252 (the independent supporters union for LAFC). To, you know, bring more awareness and if we're gonna do a drive, bring more supplies.

Aimée: That sounds amazing, though. You guys do loads. That's incredible.

Su Jin: Yeah, I mean, I think that's kind of what made us fall in love with this community. It’s that we're always trying to give back and if there are so many people, there are so many different things that they care about. You know, this is a space where you can bring it forward and actually have the numbers of the people to support.

Aimée: Ok, so I’ll bring up El Trafico (otherwise known as the LA Derby), just for a second. Because the first awareness I had of how soccer in America was growing, was when David Beckham went to LA Galaxy.

That really, you know, helped to shine a light on what Americans were doing with football. I've always kind of kept an eye on American soccer since then, and watching LAFC grow as kind of a counterpoint to LA Galaxy - that had been around for so long - was so interesting.

With that rivalry in mind, why did you guys feel so attached to LAFC during its inception? Was it because the club is so young, as opposed to say being a big entity like Galaxy, for example?

Su Jin: That was an easy one. It's just its outreach and what LFC did. I first heard about LAFC, because as part of the LA Chelsea Blues (the LA Chelsea Supporters Club). They were reaching out to all these different groups out here. They reached out to the Manchester United group, they reached out to the Liverpool group, and it was just like, “Okay, this is cool.”

Prior to that, I did go to Galaxy games. When Ashley Cole signed for the Galaxy or like, when Drogba came with Montreal. That's the only reason I would go to the Galaxy games. I didn't go because I was going to support LA soccer. There was nothing fascinating about MLS (Major League Soccer) back then. Like it was just, you know, each country had to have a league. So there you go, here's America's league. I just didn't care for it.

But with LAFC, it was just like, “Hey… they're new.” They're trying to build this from the ground up. And I was like, “This is exciting.” So you know, you go in with no expectations, and they really did get me so it was a no brainer. I loved everything, because everything about LAFC was about community and shoulder to shoulder, block by block. It was just like, “How could you say no?”

Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers

Sam: I think it's basically the same thing [for me]. I mean, Galaxy like to, you know, wave their flag of winning championships when nobody cared about the league, and they kind of leaned on that too much. It just was never really appealing as a product that I saw on the pitch. Yeah, I never really thought I would get into MLS as a league. I was waking up at four am to watch Man United matches and stuff.

Like Su said, they really reached out block by block and they knew that there was a Korean American community out here. They found a way to bring us in and give us a seat at the table to voice our opinions. When you feel like you have some type of ownership and a voice, it's a lot easier to invest your time and energy and your efforts into supporting, you know, whatever this has become.

Aimée It must have felt even more rewarding when Kim Moon Hwan came over as well: to see a Korean playing for you guys. I've chatted to him about his experience, but what was that like from your perspective to see him come over?

Sam: Of course, it was exciting. Just like Su said, it's that national team thing that happens with Koreans during World Cups and Olympics and stuff. Having a piece of that in our backyard is more than we [hoped for] and we didn't think it would happen this soon. When it happened, we [were] all kind of shocked and excited.

Su Jin: I think the Galaxy actually had a Korean player, which is the legendary Hong Myung Bo. My Galaxy friends would be like, “Well, you didn't support a Korean player when he was here.” I’m like, “To be honest, that was at the end of his career.” No one really went to Galaxy games at the time.

But Moon is still so young… just to see that he came to LA and wants to play in LA, it was like a dream come true. I just have so much pride in that and just seeing him kind of kill it right now, it’s just so exciting.

There were so many doubters like, “Is this really like a move that's for footballing reasons?” Sure enough, he's proving his haters wrong because he's really doing so well. I couldn't be prouder as a Korean. Seeing that representation on the field is something that I'm really proud of. Getting to go to games now is just so exciting, because I was a little worried that we would never really get to see him play in person because of the pandemic. But it's right on time.

Aimée: When I was a kid, Ji Sung Park was my hero in football: my family loved him because he was that one Asian player we finally saw on TV. That he existed was amazing representation. When Shinji Kagawa came [to Manchester United], it still had that same kind of resonance because again, it's another Asian player that you don’t often see in major European leagues at all.

With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts as an American about how you see diversity and the growth or lack of growth of Asian players in the sport as well?

Sam: I think it’s… it's a long time coming. I think that it will do well for the confidence of young Asian kids growing up where they're not the, you know, the dominant person there or the majority you know? What's cool about growing up in Los Angeles or like certain places in the US in the States... New York, maybe Atlanta and Texas, where there's like more of a dense Asian population. [It means] we are a little different compared to the rest of the US just because we do have enough of a population. There's just a different type of attitude and swagger [from] the Asians that come from those places because we're not so scared and we don't feel so invisible.

I think that with the representation that you see on the pitch from guys like Son (Heung-Min)... I mean, how can you not love Son unless you support Chelsea or something? It's people like that, [who] work their asses off and do it with a smile and grace and are able to represent the Asian community in the limelight? It's beautiful and I hope more of that happens.

Su Jin: I still love Son! I do! I just wish he would leave Spurs. We all do. Yeah. He deserves better (laughter).

Slowly but surely as I get older, I see more and more representation in different sports and that really makes me happy because it's not for me, but even for kids younger than all of us… them getting to grow up and seeing someone that looks like them on the pitch, on TV, it's just so it's so great to see that because I think that also builds confidence in who they are in this world.

For me, I remember going to Dodgers games with my dad because we had a Korean pitcher named Chan Ho Park. Now as an adult, a few years ago, we had another Korean pitcher, and it was just kind of getting to see that it's becoming a bit more common, it's like, “Whoa, I wish I had that more.” I wish more kids had that as they were growing up.

I think for a lot of us Asians, it's like, we're stereotyped as being docile, go with the flow type of people. But no, we all have a voice. We all have a say in how we want this world to be. So getting to see that in sport and media in just those little small pockets makes such a big difference. I'm seeing a gradual change in that. That makes me really happy.

Aimée: Why do you think those changes are happening? When I asked Kim Moon-Hwan the same question, he replied along the lines of saying that he thought there is this impression for more and more young Korean kids that it's possible, this dream that they can really achieve. That's what's making them say, “You know what, I can do it.”

Su Jin: I think it’s exactly what he said. There are more and more kids who probably grew up seeing this or seeing that, or having parents who grew up with seeing just that one person that made a difference, and gave them the confidence to know that they have a place in society, they have a place in this world.

When I go through my Instagram feed… you see more and more Asians, and it's just that there's this sense of pride in that.

So it’s getting kids to see that even more. The world is everyone's oyster, right? They just have to go and get it. I like that Moon said that and that he noticed that too, because I think the children are our future.

Sam: [I think it] comes from them having seen [players] before, you know, Korean kids like Son who probably watched the 2002 World Cup, and, you know, a light bulb went off.

Also, a lot of [people in] these Asian countries come from wars or poverty... from trauma and wanted something [in life] that was going to be concrete. So they ended up pencil pushing in [certain] types of jobs and our parents’ generation were able to work their butts off to give us, give their kids, an opportunity to play sports or do things in the arts.

You know, it's all encapsulated in that story. Yeah.

Aimée: You mentioned a little bit earlier about how you connect with the Korean national team as well. It’s easier with technology today, but how do you maintain that connection even though Korea is so far away from LA?

Sam: You know, if you hear the story of how people got into football in general, a lot of times it's going to be from World Cups. I think especially for people from my generation, the 2002 World Cup, weighs heavily in our memories. You remember your parents going and buying a whole bunch of breakfast sandwiches to wake you up at four in the morning to watch games. Then you remember going to school and seeing all the other Korean kids wearing red shirts and sleeping in class because the same thing happened to them. Once this group was formed [we had] our first watch party...

I think that's kind of one of our big goals, as this group has grown is to kind of figure out how to do more events to kind of draw people in from the national team crowd and whatnot. Although we are a Korean group, we're a Los Angeles Koreatown group, and it's probably the most diverse group in the 3252. So, you know, we go to events for the Korean national team matches, the Mexico national team matches, the Salvadorian national team matches and people from Vietnam and Thailand are in the group too.

Aimée: Did you guys then end up having a watch party when Korea won gold at the Asian Games in 2018?

Su Jin: We tried as many watch parties as we could. If it was at a certain time when nothing was open, we would go to one of our members’ houses. I just remember because he had this green carpet.

It's those bonding moments that, through something such as the national team, really brought us closer. I mean, just harking back to our first watch parties. This is before LAFC actually started [in the MLS]. There were no other games to watch, so it was Korean national team games.

If you look at the first photo we took as a group with just random people that came, there is like, a 70 year old Korean couple standing in the front with LAFC caps. I think this group started with only five and we had to get, like, random people to take a picture with us. But now we have a group of a little over 100 at least. It's really fantastic to witness.

Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers

Aimée: It must be great seeing all the young Korean footballing talent coming through too. Where do you see them going? What do you think they can achieve?

Su Jin: They are such a young young group, and unfortunately the K League isn't the greatest league for a player to develop. So a lot of our Korean players, they're out there in Europe. Some are still in Asia. Now seeing that someone like Kim came to LA is like, okay, there are more opportunities here.

I think the sky's the limit for the Korean national team, so I can only hope there are the brightest and best in there.

Aimée: When it comes to LAFC what I think is amazing about the team is that they have so quickly managed to establish themselves as a team with silverware and becoming really well known even though they haven't been around for as long as say, DC United, teams like that. It's amazing how quickly they've grown. What are your hopes for the team in the future?

Su Jin: I still want us to win an MLS Cup. And I would definitely want us to win the CONCACAF Champions League. I think no MLS team has won that yet. So I hope LAFC are the first. I think there's just no ceiling to reach yet.

Our start to the season wasn't the greatest, but I think we're slowly picking up steam. So I'm excited. I'm hoping that we can end the season with some silverware.

Sam: As far as our supporters... [I want us] to grow together, to not get stagnant in what's been built, and to always try to elevate it. Yeah, I think it's an exciting time for us like you've said, all this is happening really fast.

There's always more to do, more to cheer for, more to sing for, more and more work to do in the community. We got our one and a half year break [due to the pandemic] so we’re ready to hit the ground running again.

Aimée: On behalf of the Tigers, is there any message you’d like to send out there? Whether that's for the kids that are reading, whether that's just to people who love football… What would you want to tell them? No pressure, no pressure!

Su Jin: Come to LA and we will definitely show you a good time. I just think it's important for Asians everywhere just to be true to who they are and know that there's space in society for them. So speak up, fight for what you think is right, and we're all in this together.

Sam: Be happy, be bold, screw everyone that doesn't like you.

Aimée: I love it, I love it! That was so fab. Thank you guys so much for speaking to me today… and if it’s any consolation, Manchester City had such a bad start to the season (20/21) and somehow still ended up winning a bunch of stuff. So you guys can definitely get there!

Su Jin: Thank you, thank you!

Sam: I mean, in the last couple of years that Seattle won the championship, that is kind of how they started too, so I'm hoping we just kind of… switch roles!

Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers
Photo credit: LAFC & the LAFC Tigers

The LAFC Tigers can be found on Instagram and Twitter, and catch LAFC playing right now as part of the 2021 MLS season.