Difficult roster decisions await LAFC as it sorts out player contracts
John Thorrington hadn’t even finished washing the champagne out of his hair after last Saturday’s MLS Cup victory celebration before LAFC’s general manager was forced to turn his attention to next season.
“We are going to let this year’s achievements sink in, but it makes us no less ambitious,” said Thorrington, who built LAFC’s title-winning team. “If anything, the feeling of winning motivates us to do our best to repeat.”
It won’t be easy in a league that hasn’t had a team win back-to-back titles in more than a decade. But the first step toward that goal begins Monday when Thorrington must decide which players will receive contract offers for next season and which players will have their contract options declined.
“I would like to keep this whole team together,” he said. “But with our constraints and regulations, keeping the whole group and adding is impossible. So we have to identify what we need and sometimes there is surgery needed. Hopefully that’s marginal and nothing too invasive. But time will tell.”
MLS has a salary cap and a number of other roster rules designed to induce parity. For general managers like Thorrington, the rules induce frustration and anxiety.
LAFC secured its first league crown with a victory over the Philadelphia Union on penalty kicks Saturday in the greatest of the 27 MLS Cup finals.
At least a dozen LAFC players saw their contracts expire after the MLS Cup final, though many of them have club options. Captain Carlos Vela, midfielder Ilie Sánchez and defender Giorgio Chiellini are all reportedly signed through next season while winger Gareth Bale is signed through the spring. Those four deals will cost LAFC more than $5 million. The team also owes another $3.4 million in base salary to designated players Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello.
National team midfielder Kellyn Acosta ($1.1 million) and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau ($275,000) are among those with contract options that Thorrington said he planned to exercise.
“For now that’s the plan,” Thorrington said of Acosta. “Things can change, but he’s under contract for next season.”
Thorrington said Crepeau, who left the field on a cart after breaking his leg late in the MLS Cup final, had successful surgery but is expected to be out at least the first few months of the 2023 season.
Defender Ryan Hollingshead, who had a career season, can enter free agency Wednesday, and Sebastian Mendez, Franco Escobar and Sebastien Ibeagha are reportedly out of contract as well. It will be challenging for Thorrington to keep the team together at a payroll close to the $19 million LAFC spent last season.
“It’s impossible to keep everybody and sometimes even difficult to keep the core,” Thorrington said. “What I would say works in our advantage is I think our players love playing here. And I think they know that we treat them as best we can.
“But when we sort of finished the celebrations and have those conversations, sometimes they are difficult.”
Among those who could be leaving are midfielders José Cifuentes and Latif Blessing. Cifuentes, who is going to the World Cup with Ecuador, is still under contract but both LAFC and Cifuentes, 23, have begun exploring transfer offers.
“There is significant interest in from Europe for Cifu,” Thorrington said. “And as we have done consistently in the past, we are closely working with the agent and player and the interested clubs to see if there is the right solution for LAFC and for Cifu.”
LAFC won its first Major League Soccer title Saturday, defeating the Philadelphia Union on penalty kicks 3-0 at Banc of California Stadium.
LAFC has a contract option on Blessing, 25, a member of the original roster in 2018, but he played a career-low 1,332 minutes this season and said he missed friends and family in Ghana.
In addition to Monday’s deadline for announcing contract decisions and the start of free agency on Wednesday, the reentry draft for players out of contract but not eligible for free agency will begin Thursday. LAFC could be active in much of that given the need for depth because of the number of games it could play next year.
In addition to the 34-game MLS regular season, which it opens Feb. 25 against the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, LAFC will play in the CONCACAF Champions League beginning in March, the U.S. Open Cup and in the monthlong Leagues Cup in midsummer. It could require the team to play as many as 57 matches in less than 10 months if it returns to the MLS Cup final.
But while Thorrington’s job description requires him to look ahead, he said he’s not quite ready to let go of last week’s MLS Cup win just yet.
“The first MLS Cup, I think it felt a bit like a monkey off our back,” he said. “We have not shied away from our desire to win MLS Cup, so to deliver that to our supporters and just the players and the staff for everything they poured into it, not just this year but for five years, was just an incredible, incredible moment.”
Now the challenge becomes doing it again.