The field always feels a little bit wider, a little bit longer, every time Woodland Hills El Camino Real High soccer coach Ian Kogan brings his boys’ soccer team to play at Lake Balboa Birmingham.
The Patriots have a wide-open green swath that, in comparison to El Camino Real’s home patch of grass, seems to stretch for eternity. It’s perfect for Birmingham’s playing style, built on speed and quick passes. It’s terrible for El Camino Real’s style, built on long kicks and throw-ins.
The field is chalked by coach EB Madha before every game. Kogan has a sneaking suspicion: in games hosting the Royals, Madha paints the sidelines just a little farther apart than normal.
Well, it’s not a suspicion. Madha admits it.
“That’s why it’s called home-field advantage,” Madha said. “One of ECR’s biggest weapons is the set-piece throw-in. What coach wouldn’t take that away?”
“The problem with ECR is their field is way too narrow,” he continued. “Tell [Kogan] I’ll narrow the field if he can widen his.”
This is how the Birmingham-El Camino Real soccer rivalry works. It’s a never-ending heavyweight match, the two storied programs tossing the same jabs back and forth until a punch is landed and both regroup, scrambling back to their corners for another round.
The two programs have been at the top of the City Section for nearly five years. This season has brought more of the same — Birmingham has compiled a 17-1-2 record despite missing much of its top talent, and El Camino Real sits at 15-2. If they meet in the playoffs once again — as expected since the Royals are seeded No. 1 and the Patriots No. 2 — sparks will fly.
“They look at us as, ‘We’ve got to knock those guys to move on,’ and we look at them as the ones who stand in the way of us being number one this year,” Madha said. “When we play each other, we’re very well aware that either one of us can’t afford to lose that game.”
El Camino Real started the run of dominance with a City championship in 2018. Birmingham countered with a title win in 2019. The Royals came back to beat the Patriots in the semifinals in 2020. Birmingham turned around and knocked them off in the city finals last year on a penalty kick.
It’s a constant game of King of the Hill, one team gaining a foothold as the other slides downonly to claw their way back to the top.
“Since my first year on varsity, it’s been intense,” said Jose Arias, a captain for El Camino Real. “Never been a dull moment.”
The rivalry has existed for decades. Yet over the last few seasons, as it’s turned into a battle for the city and things have gotten personal.
There’s many versions of what both sides dub “the parking lot incident.” Here’s what’s known for certain: after a playoff game between El Camino Real and Sun Valley Poly, Birmingham students who’d been heckling Royals players from the stands, met them in the parking lot and a skirmish ensued.
Kogan and his players said those students included Birmingham players, who shouted obscenities at them, making racist gestures toward senior captain Jose Coto. Birmingham is adamant those students were not on the team, and that El Camino Real was pushing the incident to get Patriots players suspended.
Tensions have never been higher. There’s little love lost between players. Even coaches.
“That pushed it to the limit, as far as I’m concerned,” Kogan said. “I have a mutual respect for [Madha] as a coach, I think he does a good job, but there are certain characteristics of him that I’m just not a fan of.”
Madha’s view of the skirmish: “If they want to use that as their motivational tool, go for it. For us, we’ve long forgot that.”
Before last season’s City Section finals, Royals players arrived at Birmingham’s field, setting down their things on benches before to lace up their cleats.
Suddenly the sprinklers turned on. The El Camino Real team was soaked.
They felt disrespected. And they were sure Madha was behind it.
“It was just a, ‘What the hell?’ situation,” Royals senior Sebastian Cortes said.
Birmingham players, for the most part, scoff at any indication that they take stock in the rivalry.
“I feel like they take it more like hatred,” Birmingham midfielder Christian Moran said. “Us, we see it a different way.”
The first matchup of the season brought a heap of trash talk, a game El Camino Real won 2-1. Madha, however, said Birmingham was playing without six starters as COVID-19 and injuries ravaged the team. The Royals got the last regular-season laugh with a 3-1 win in their second meeting last week.
“ECR won the battle today,” Madha said after Thursday’s loss. “The war hasn’t started.”
Birmingham winger David Diaz had two goals in the win, a sign he’s fully rounded into top-tier form after missing a handful of games with injury. Despite missing time — against his wishes, as Madha said he had to sit Diaz down and explain to him that he shouldn’t take the field — Diaz is still the team’s leading scorer this season with 24 goals.
El Camino Real, meanwhile, features the dynamic Pedro Perez, who has 13 goals this season in just 10 games. Cortes has thrived on setups, notching five assists, and as a whole the Royals feature a balanced attack that can make anyone the hero on any given night.
Heavy stakes weigh on this season’s outcome. A Birmingham championship would bring their first back-to-back titles in program history. An El Camino Real win would mean a 3-2 advantage over Birmingham across the last five years and redemption for last season’s heartbreak.
“It’s kind of like a ‘back in blood’ situation,” Royals senior Sebastian Cortes said. “We’re going to win state and city” titles.
Each team feels the other is scared of them. There’s a bravado they carry, never willing to concede that the other side got under their skin.
At the end of the day, Kogan said, what his players will remember from their high school careers is whether or not they beat Birmingham.