L.A. Football Club goes outside the box with John Thorrington hire
Give the fledgling Los Angeles Football Club credit for this much: its executives aren’t afraid to think outside the box.
The franchise’s 24 deep-pocketed, well-connected owners could have lured just about anyone to Southern California to help put the team together for its 2018 Major League Soccer debut. But they took the unconventional route, making John Thorrington their executive vice president of soccer operations.
By all accounts Thorrington, 36, is exceptionally bright, hard-working and personable. And he has a wealth of soccer experience, having played in Europe and MLS and for the U.S. national team.
What he hasn’t done, however, is put together a soccer team. Not even at the AYSO level.
Now he’s been tasked with building one from scratch in one of the most dynamic, fastest-growing leagues in the world. Doing that will require Thorrington, the only soccer-specific hire the team has made in its first 14 months, to establish and staff a developmental academy, partner with a USL affiliate, hire a coaching staff and, eventually, sign players.
Some of those hires could help Thorrington compensate for his lack of executive experience. But until then, he’ll have no one to turn to for advice since he’s the only LAFC employee with any pro soccer experience.
“It sounds stupid,” said one league executive, who did not want his name used when discussing another club’s personnel. “Maybe it will work out. But it’s too much on his plate. He needs somebody above him that can guide him.”
Directly above him is President Tom Penn, an ESPN basketball analyst and former NBA executive, and owners Peter Guber and Henry Nguyen, who have owned baseball and basketball teams but never a soccer club.
The team’s large group of investors does include Malaysian businessmen Ruben Gnanalingam and Vincent Tan, who own second-division soccer teams in England. But neither are involved in the day-to-day operations of LAFC.
And that’s OK, says Penn. Because in hiring Thorrington, the team was looking at more than just his resume.
“You just get into similar approach, similar work ethic,” Penn said. “This is more than just the senior team. This is really the establishment of our culture and our principles.
“So when you put all that into it, it was challenging to find someone to meet them all.”
Added Guber: “When you build an organization, you build a culture. And culture is the people.”
Thorrington, who came to LAFC’s attention partly because he’s in the master’s program at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management, where Nguyen studied, does bring some practical skills to the table. In two years with the players union, he helped write the league’s complicated collective bargaining agreement, knowledge that will serve him well in negotiating the byzantine MLS salary structure.
His union work also got him into every MLS locker room, allowing him to develop personal relationships with many of the players. And he’s also learned he doesn’t know everything.
“I’m not saying I have every answer,” he said. “Pretending that I did would be a fast track to failure.”
Besides, LAFC isn’t the only MLS expansion team that’s turned to a former player to help build its foundation. Last spring, Atlanta United, which is scheduled to begin play in 2017, a year ahead of LAFC, hired onetime national team captain Carlos Bocanegra as its technical director. Like Thorrington, Bocanegra brought no previous executive experience to the job.
Unlike Bocanegra, Thorrington will be competing for attention and respect in Southern California, not Atlanta, which makes the Galaxy, the league’s most successful franchise, its chief rival. And the Galaxy is anything but unconventional and outside the box.
Bruce Arena, the team’s coach and general manager, has won more MLS titles and more national team games than anyone in U.S. Soccer history. And the rest of his staff has nearly a century of professional soccer experience combined — a number that will grow next month when two-time MLS champion Pete Vagenas, currently director of the Galaxy academy, takes on an expanded role with the organization.
Its star-studded roster includes former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, Mexican national team star Giovani dos Santos and Irish captain Robbie Keane, the league MVP in 2014. That’s a list the Galaxy will add to Monday, when the team announces its long-anticipated trade for FC Dallas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy is complete.
Think of the Galaxy as the New York Yankees then, button-down and conservative as an organization, but aggressive, free-wheeling and creative when it comes to player acquisition and development.
It’s too early to tell what to think of LAFC. Organizationally, the team wants to be hip and cutting-edge — but gritty and urban at the same time. It’s driven its early marketing at millennials while building its new stadium next to the oldest major sports facility in Los Angeles.
And if the team’s first soccer hire is any indication, LAFC may continue to frustrate attempts at squeezing it into any particular box.
“We’re going to be challenging in everything that we do. That’s at the core of where we are and what we’ll be,” Penn said. “But there’s going to be some L.A. splash and sizzle with that.
“There’s a real opportunity here to be different and to be special in our own way.”
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