Column: LAFC is following its own path in building toward its inaugural MLS season
Atlanta United prepared for its first MLS season in 2017 by hiring a well-known former World Cup coach in Gerardo “Tata” Martino, signing a pair of exciting Latin American players in Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron to designated-player contracts, then surrounding them with experienced veterans that included Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst.
It was a well-executed plan that paid off when United became the first expansion team to reach the postseason since 2009. It’s also a blueprint the Los Angeles Football Club appears to be following in the run-up to its MLS debut in March.
Last July, the team hired a well-known former World Cup coach in Bob Bradley. It has signed exciting Latin American players in Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi to designated-player contracts, then last week surrounded them with experienced veterans that included Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman.
But the similarities, says John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president of soccer operations, are more a coincidence than a copy.
“We have stuck to our plan, which was set in place prior to seeing [Atlanta],” said Thorrington, who last week went a long way toward building his team, adding a half-dozen players through trades, signings and the MLS expansion draft. “Some of what Atlanta has done has affirmed our vision of what we want to be.
“But we are not copying anyone.”
And while he wouldn’t mind copying Atlanta’s first-year success, building a winning team from the ground up in MLS is more than challenging, it’s nearly impossible. Just compare LAFC to the Galaxy, the [mostly] successful crosstown rival with whom it will soon be competing.
The Galaxy, five-time league champions, can lean on a deep tradition, a built-out academy system and a successful USL affiliate stacked with Galaxy recruits — not to mention a full roster.
LAFC has none of those things.
“When you look at teams, successful teams in our league, there’s a lot of continuity there. And that’s what we, by definition, cannot have,” said Thorrington, who suffered through a dismal expansion season as a player in Vancouver. “There is expected turbulence that is just going to happen.
“What you need is steady hands at the wheel, clear philosophy, clear identity of what you’re going to be about so in those stormy times, you can ride them out. Because they will come, we all know that. We’re not in any way naïve.”
Vancouver won just six of 34 games in 2011, which is the norm rather than the exception. Bradley experienced the exception, winning a title as a coach in Chicago’s first year, still the only time an expansion team has won the MLS Cup.
It’s worth noting the Fire hasn’t won a title since — or matched its first-year attendance record — a cautionary tale that isn’t lost on a man who again finds himself trying to construct a team and an identity from scratch.
“Successful clubs around the world connect with cities, connect with supporters and people,” Bradley said. “That feeling of building a team and doing it in a way so that there’s a real connection … was exciting the first go-round. And I’m really looking forward to that now.”
That connection with the supporters, who were given a loud voice in the choice of the club’s colors and crest — and even some design aspects in the team’s stadium — already has been established. That’s why the club soon will announce it has sold out its season-ticket allotment before the team has even played a game.
And management is committed to rewarding that support, having devoted more than $18 million in transfer fees and first-year salaries to Vela and Rossi. That’s more than the Galaxy spent on salaries for its entire first team in 2017.
Still, Thorrington says he won’t sacrifice the team’s long-term health for a quick start out of the gate.
“Our goal here is not to be good Year One,” he said. “For sure, we want to competitive Year One. But our goal is to be sustainably successful, which is much harder in MLS.”
Thorrington may have set the cornerstone for that foundation last week in a busy six-day flurry in which he signed Rossi, traded for Ciman and Zimmerman and picked up Costa Rican international Marco Urena in the expansion draft. LAFC also obtained goalkeeper Tyler Miller and Ghanaian forward Latif Blessing in the MLS expansion draft. A month earlier, it signed speedy Egyptian winger Omar Gaber on loan from Swiss club FC Basel.
The acquisitions reflect Thorrington’s desire to build a roster that will be aggressive, creative and exciting on the attack — much like Atlanta United’s.
But then again, much different as well.
“We are a combination of a number of things that [are] uniquely LAFC,” he said. “We’re not following any plan that’s been here before. That’s important and a good trend that you’re seeing in MLS.
“You’re seeing teams set up philosophies and tactical approaches that fit their unique market. And L.A. is not Atlanta.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11