The last time John Thorrington put together a soccer team, he was choosing sides with some junior high school friends in a Palos Verdes schoolyard. So in his current job as executive vice president of soccer operations for the fledgling Los Angeles Football Club, he’s not shy about asking for help.
“My advice is that you have to try some different things,” Darren Eales, a former executive director at England’s Tottenham Hotspur, told Thorrington over dinner last week. “You’ve got to look for every edge you can.”
Thorrington plans to follow Eales’ advice, as well as his example. As president of Atlanta United, an MLS expansion franchise that begins play in March, a year ahead of LAFC, Eales has presided over one of the most ambitious and expensive construction projects in league history.
Over the last five months, Eales has hired former Barcelona and Argentina manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino as his coach and paid an $8.5-million transfer fee — third-highest in MLS history — for Miguel Almiron, a 22-year-old Paraguayan playmaker.
In April, the team will move into a $60 million training facility in an Atlanta suburb and in July it’s scheduled to open a $1.5 billion retractable-roof stadium it will share with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
With a capacity of 77,000, it will be the largest in MLS.
Bigger, better and more posh. That’s the blueprint LAFC has also been following since a deep-pocketed ownership group of entertainment, sports and business celebrities paid a then-record $110 million fee to join the league 2½ years ago.
But because the team won’t begin play until 2018, Atlanta United has jumped the line to set the standard for an MLS expansion team.
“We’re not looking at it as, ‘Hey, we’re doing this. We’re raising the bar,’ ” said former national team captain Carlos Bocanegra, Atlanta United’s technical director. “We want to do things properly.”
Either way Thorrington admits he’s been impressed, but not intimidated, by Atlanta’s swagger. And he’s preparing a response.
“I don’t ignore it,” he said. “What Atlanta has done is great. It’s gotten a lot of attention.”
But, he added, “being a competitor, I want us to be the best team in the league.”
In other words, bring it on.
LAFC won’t play its first game for 14 months, but it is already in negotiations with players and agents. Thorrington’s boss, team president Tom Penn, said last fall the team has identified 10 targets, with published reports linking the club to Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, Mexican national team star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas, among others.
“We’re moving, we’re in talks,” confirmed Thorrington who, like Penn, declined to discuss by name players who are under contract to other teams. “We have received interest from top, top players around the world.”
LAFC is looking for more than just big names, though.
“We have a pretty tightly defined profile of players that we want and how we want to play,” Thorrington said. “The right character. It’s on the field, off the field. A lot of different things play a part.
“There are players now interested in MLS that probably weren’t five years ago.”
LAFC already has a player-development agreement with the OC Blues of the second-tier United Soccer League, meaning the club can sign young players now and loan them to the Blues for the 2017 season. It also expects to have its academy fully built out by next fall. To date, Atlanta is the only team to have had a USL affiliate and a complete academy program in place before its first MLS game.
LAFC could also acquire and loan more established players, as Orlando City did when it signed world player of the year Kaka and sent him to Sao Paulo for the half-season before the club’s MLS debut. Or as New York City FC did with Frank Lampard and David Villa, who played in England and Australia, respectively, before NYCFC joined the league.
“If we feel like the time is right to move on a player, we will,” Thorrington said.
The team is likely to be more patient in hiring a coach, however. Although Thorrington says he’s been shocked by the level of interest in the LAFC job, he won’t rush his decision, concentrating more on finding the best fit rather than the biggest name.
“I don’t want to set a deadline and hire the best coach at that time. I want the best coach,” he said. “And if that means we have to wait another month, we’ll wait another month.”
The goal, Thorrington said, is to build a team and a coaching staff with something Atlanta can’t match: the split personality of Los Angeles, which he defines as part glamour, part grit.
“It sounds corny, but I really do mean it,” he said. “When you look at teams that really capture a city, it’s when the fans of that team look and say, ‘Well, that represents us.’
“There is no hiding that L.A. is an aesthetically pleasing place. It’s this glitz and glamour and the Hollywood L.A. [For] people in L.A., it’s more a story of, ‘No, I identify with the grit of L.A.’ So it’s balancing the substance with style. We have to be a team that our fans enjoy watching because that’s the profile of our fans.”
Atlanta, consider yourself warned.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11