Last week’s Champions League loss to León wasn’t the way LAFC wanted to start what figures to be a pivotal season. Whether it was simply a bad day against a good team or a harbinger of things to come could be answered Thursday, when the teams meet again in the second leg of the two-game playoff.
LAFC certainly isn’t used to losing. It didn’t drop back-to-back games all of last year, when it broke the MLS record for points, tied the record for goals and basically enjoyed the best regular season in league history. In its first two years, LAFC earned the most points and scored the most goals in the league, while its 35 wins were the most in the Western Conference and its 13 losses were fewest in the league.
It will be difficult to improve on that.
But LAFC also has made two early exits from the MLS playoffs and won just one trophy, last season’s Supporter’s Shield. So general manager John Thorrington didn’t have to think long when asked what his team can do for an encore.
“The bitter taste at the end of last season says everything about what we still want to achieve,” he said after Friday’s extended training sessions. “Everybody can be justifiably proud on the field, off the field for the success that we have had to date. But there are still trophies out there that we’re hungry to get.”
That’s not the only way to measure progress, though, especially since Thorrington said from the start that he values long-term consistency over flashes of brilliance. And that makes this perhaps the most important of LAFC’s first three years; not only must the team build off a record-setting season, but it will also have to do that while in transition after pushing out four key contributors to the team’s early success.
This winter, Thorrington traded away goalkeeper Tyler Miller and center back Walker Zimmerman and chose not to re-sign right back Steven Beitashour, who played big roles in a defense that allowed a league-low 37 goals. He also left midfielder Lee Nguyen unprotected in December’s expansion draft, allowing Inter Miami to snap him up.
And that could hurt LAFC not only on the field, where the four combined for 101 appearances last season, but also in the dressing room, where Zimmerman and Beitashour provided an important veteran presence.
“You sometimes have to make tough decisions that affect things on and off the field,” Thorrington said. “And yes it is change. That means other guys have to step up. We make those decisions confident that the guys we bring in, as well as the guys that are here, will grow into new and different roles in a way that will serve the club.”
And this is where Thorrington’s blueprint truly gets creative. Last season, nearly 42% of LAFC’s league minutes went to players under 24, the highest percentage of any MLS team by far. This season, Thorrington is doubling down on that youth movement; since August he has signed five players who weren’t old enough to buy a beer in California and four of them are expected to play big roles this year.
Add in returning defender Tristan Blackmon, 23, who took Beitashour’s spot in the loss to León, and it would be easy to see LAFC starting eight players younger than 24 — including three who weren’t on the roster seven months ago.
“It fits our financial model that we want to invest in players who are on the upswing of the bell curve of their career,” Thorrington said. “We’re certainly not in the market to go spend $20 million on 28-year-olds like some of the European clubs. Our model is designed to identify the right players, recruit, bring them here, get them in our environment, and then move on.”
Sometimes it works, as with Diego Rossi, 21, and Eduard Atuesta, 22, making either the midseason all-star team (Rossi) or the postseason best XI (Atuesta) last year. And sometimes it doesn’t, as with André Horta, 22, turning out to be a $7.2-million bust and being shipped back to Portugal after playing 503 mostly forgettable MLS minutes.
“It would have been great to pick up where we left off obviously. [But in the] offseason, a lot of things happened,” said defender Jordan Harvey, at 36 the oldest player on the team and who was once a teammate of Thorrington.
“To measure success — new squad, new season — I know everyone preaches winning trophies. But with this squad, I think success early is bringing all the new signings up to speed with our style of play, reactions and what it takes to play for LAFC.”
The question is can LAFC keep winning while it’s reloading. Thorrington not only thinks it can but insists it must if the team really values long-term consistency over a two-season stretch of brilliance.
“They’re certainly not mutually exclusive concepts,” he said. “But we don’t make decisions purely for the short term at the cost of that trajectory. Now moving into Year 3, we’re moving more into a steady state where we know what we’re about. We have continuity.
“But the challenges as you get better, by definition it becomes harder to improve.”
Judged by LAFC’s own standards, anything less would be a failure.