Marco Urena had never lived in Southern California before the fledgling Los Angeles Football Club claimed him in December’s MLS expansion draft. Same goes for goalkeeper Tyler Miller.
So the players had to hustle to find both roommates and temporary housing before the team opened training camp two weeks ago. And the effect that forced togetherness is having on LAFC’s nascent team building was apparent Friday in the first game in the franchise’s short history.
With Urena scoring two second-half goals in front of Miller’s active and energetic play in front of the net, LAFC twice rallied from deficits to earn a 2-2 preseason draw with Toronto FC at UCLA.
Urena’s game-tying goal, in the 84th minute, was set up by roommate Diego Rossi, evidence the two forwards already share a chemistry as well as an address.
“We have a family dynamic where we eat together at the same table, at night we have dinner together, we cook, we talk,” Urena, a Costa Rica international, said in Spanish. “That’s really helped us get to know each other as friends, as brothers.”
LAFC coach Bob Bradley believes forging those kinds of relationships away from the field pays huge dividends on it, especially on an expansion team where most players start out as strangers.
“That’s what becoming a team means,” he said. “You talk to guys and you find out where they come from and what their families are about. Some of that has gone well.”
Toronto, coming off the most successful season in MLS history, took an early lead Friday on Tsubasa Endoh’s goal in the 12th minute. Urena, a center striker who played for the MLS San Jose Earthquakes last season, then came on in the second half and, flanked by Rossi and Latif Blessing in Bradley’s 4-3-3 formation, he was immediately dangerous.
Portuguese winger Joao Moutinho set up the first goal with a low lead pass that left Urena one on one with Toronto keeper Alex Bono. When the goalkeeper came off his line to cut down the angle, Urena lifted a right-footed shot over him to tie the score in the 54th minute.
Toronto, which has been training at UC Irvine, went back in front 24 minutes later when Sebastian Giovinco, launched into the penalty area by a nice feed from Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, beat Miller at the far post.
Rossi and Urena then hooked up for the equalizer with six minutes to play. With Urena about to break toward the penalty area, Rossi threaded a left-footed pass through defense to his roommate, who beat Toronto’s Chris Mavinga to the ball. And though Bono made a sprawling save on his first shot, the ball ricocheted behind the keeper, allowing Urena to run under it and nod it into the goal.
“We combined well. We had some opportunities,” said Miller, who has shared a place with defender Dejan Jakovic and holding midfielder Aaron Kovar.
“A lot of the chemistry happens off the field. Every day we’re trying to grow a little bit more and become a little bit more comfortable with each other.”
Time is running short, though. Not only is the MLS opener just a month away, but Urena’s family will be arriving in a few weeks, meaning he’ll be giving up his roommates.
“The most important thing now is to create a strong group, a strong team,” he said. “Because the individual isn’t going to be as strong as all of us together.”
Forward Carlos Vela, who went 90 minutes for the Mexican national team in Wednesday’s win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, did not take the field Friday, but Maurice Edu, a former U.S. international from Fontana who is trying to win a place on the LAFC roster, played the first half.