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Barcelona's interest in Carlos Vela both a compliment and a curse for LAFC

Barcelona's interest in Carlos Vela both a compliment and a curse for LAFC
Carlos Vela celebrates after scoring against the Galaxy during an MLS game last season. (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)

Bob Bradley spent most of last season, the first for the Los Angeles Football Club, trying to teach his team how to play like Barcelona. So he took it as a compliment last week when the Spanish superclub expressed interest in acquiring one of his best students, captain Carlos Vela.

How serious that interest is and where it will lead might not be known until the transfer window in Spain closes at the end of the month. John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and executive vice president of soccer operations, said Saturday that “the club is obviously aware of the conversation going on publicly but we will not disclose details.”

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What Vela thinks is unknown since the LAFC star didn’t show for a scheduled interview at an MLS media event Saturday. Reports out of Spain were conflicting, with some having Barcelona close to a deal while others saying the team had lost interest in Vela.

That uncertainty figures to hover over the team’s first day of training camp, which opens Monday. LAFC is trying to build off one of the most successful expansion seasons in MLS history, one that saw the club set a league record for points (57) and record the second-most goals (68) and wins (16) for a first-year team.

The team lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup and the first round of the MLS playoffs, giving it a clear objective for 2019.

“As you go from one season to the next you’re trying to go further,” Bradley said. “So it’s not about maintaining.

“In the first year, yes, we had good football moments. But we didn’t win the league and we didn’t win the Cup.”

LAFC is far ahead of where it was at this time last year, when it opened camp in rented facilities at UCLA with so few players it had to borrow some from the Bruins to hold scrimmages.

The team will start preparations for the new season at a state-of-the-art training center at Cal State L.A. with 20 players under contract. Many of those players joined the team after the start of the 2018 season and quickly became key contributors.

Among those preparing for their first preseason camp with LAFC are midfielders Lee Nguyen and Andre Horta, defenders Danilo Silva and Mohamed El-Munir, and forward Adama Diomande. Forward Christian Ramirez, who joined LAFC from Minnesota United in midsummer, will report to camp early next month after he and teammates Walker Zimmerman, a defender, and Tyler Miller, a goalkeeper, finish their work with the U.S. national team.

The only player missing from the starting lineup Bradley used in LAFC’s final game last season is midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who signed with Colorado as a free agent after playing a team-high 35 games last season.

“Last year we tried to lay groundwork in preseason. For the guys that were there, we were able to establish some clear ideas of how we wanted to play,” Bradley said. “When guys entered at different points of the season, we challenged them to be open to how we play.

“To have some of those guys now in preseason, that’s a plus.”

Bradley preaches a possession-oriented playing style in which his team builds out of the back, presses opponents all over the field and attacks in numbers. It is a selfless, team-oriented approach that can be difficult to learn and even tougher to master.

Yet Vela and Uruguayan forward Diego Rossi quickly found success with that system, combining for 26 goals and 21 assists. Diomande, who joined the team from Hull City of the English Championship league in May, added another 12 goals, making LAFC the only team in the league that had three players score at least 12 times.

“We have a very good group and we’re excited that there’s carryover. That the good work from last year can now be pushed into this season,” Bradley said. “That’s great. But again there’s all these different challenges.”

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Keeping Vela, 29, might now be at the top of that list. As that drama plays out, however, LAFC is expecting Vela to join the team Monday as it prepares to complete some business it left unfinished last fall.

“There’s certainly a lot of pieces that we had in place last year that made us a dangerous team,” said Zimmerman, who will anchor the defense after signing a four-year contract worth more than $2.1 million. “But at the end of the day, expansion team or not, we knew that we were one of the most talented teams in the league. And for us that means we probably should have ended up holding the trophy.

“We probably left at the end of the season with a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouth.”

LAFC at a glance

Coach: Bob Bradley, second season

2018 record: 16-9-9, third in Western Conference

Key losses: Midfielder Benny Feilhaber, forward Marco Urena and defenders Laurent Ciman, Omar Gaber and Joao Moutinho

Key additions: Defenders Mohamed El-Munir and Eddie Segura

Preseason schedule: Jan. 31 vs. Vissel Kobe, Banc of California Stadium, 7 p.m. The remainder of the schedule will be released this week)

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