The ceremony LAFC organized Monday morning to present Carlos Vela with the the MLS most-valuable-player and Golden Boot awards unfolded more like a eulogy than a celebration. There were videotaped tributes from the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Adrian Gonzalez, none of whom played soccer.
Dodgers great Fernando Valenzuela waschosen to present the trophies, after which Vela posed for a series of photos with his teammates and the club’s platoon-sized ownership group.
But in between, Vela stood on the stage alone with a microphone and the two awards and said, in English and Spanish, that those prizes weren’t the ones he really wanted.
“I want the bigger one,” he said, alluding to the MLS Cup. “This year was incredible for the club but we’re missing the title, which is the most important thing. For me that’s the challenge, the goal that I have for next year. And I’m going to work like crazy to get it.”
Sitting in the front row, John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and the man who signed Vela, nodded in agreement. The team Thorrington put together for LAFC’s second season set a league record for points and tied the all-time MLS mark for goals. But last week’s loss to the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference championship ended LAFC’s season a game short of the MLS Cup final.
The challenge for the offseason then is to find a way to make the team at least one victory better.
“We’ve identified certain areas we need to improve, much like we did last year. The work to do so is already underway,” Thorrington said.
But, he added, “I don’t foresee a lot of turnover.”
That’s because the core of the team is sure to return, with defender Walker Zimmerman and midfielders Latif Blessing and Mark-Anthony Kaye all signed through at least 2021. Designated players Vela and Brian Rodriguez will also be back.
However, the future of winger Diego Rossi, the team’s second-leading scorer with 28 goals in two seasons, is uncertain with top-tier clubs in Italy and Russia among those showing interest in the 21-year-old Uruguayan.
LAFC does have some shoring up to do on the back line, where Jordan Harvey, a free agent, will be 34 when next season starts, and right back Steve Beitashour, who is due a raise from the $298,375 he was paid this year, will be 33.
The team has been grooming Tristan Blackmon, 23; Diego Palacios, 20, and Mohamed El Morir, 27, to step up and join a starting lineup that, at times in 2019, featured six players younger than 24. But with LAFC facing a 34-game regular season, the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League play next year, depth and experience will be important.
“The balance is having the right amount of experience, the right kind of guy that can build into the young guys, help them improve,” Thorrington said. “A lot of the experience and education these players get is actually from their teammates. That has to enter into our calculus as we look ahead.”
In goal, Tyler Miller played 28 of 34 MLS games for a team that gave up a league-low 37 goals. But Miller struggled late, giving up six goals in two playoff games and six of his nine shutouts came in the first three months. Backup Pablo Sisniega played well in his six starts but he’s probably not ready to take on the job full time.
Complicating things further is an uncertain labor situation. With Champions League play beginning in February, LAFC will open January training camp early, about two weeks before the union’s collective bargaining agreement with MLS expires. The players are seeking changes to several rules affecting, among other things, free agency and the use of allocation money, and that leaves Thorrington to put together a roster not knowing how much money he’ll have to spend or how he can spend it.
“We have the rough parameters. Enough to where you can begin to continue signing your roster,” he said.
A roster he and Vela, who scored a league-record 34 goals in 2019, hope will be gathering for a different trophy celebration next fall.
“Next year,” Vela said, “will be better.”