Back when John Thorrington was hired as Los Angeles Football Club’s first soccer-related person, way back in December 2015, I wondered if it was the right move. Not anything against him, personally, but this was a guy who had forged a solid professional career but who had zero experience running a professional team at any level, much less an MLS expansion team with big ambitions.
This may be a story better served after the first season is totally complete, but frankly, I can’t think of it all falling apart so spectacularly that the general assessment would change. With just over a month left in LAFC’s first regular season, here’s what the team has managed to do on the field:
- They haven’t clinched a playoff spot yet, but barring an epic collapse to close out the season, their postseason berth should be secured sooner than later.
- Reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup, getting knocked out in a penalty shootout.
- Play exciting soccer (highest-scoring team in Western Conference at present; tied for fifth in fewest goals conceded, and there have been more than a few roller-coaster games along the way).
As general manager, Thorrington not only amassed a roster that is pretty deep all over the place (notable exception is center back, but maybe the trio there will suffice the rest of the way), but he’s made some pretty remarkable moves, from building a team that barely had an 18 on opening day (but still started the season well) to one that has gotten progressively stronger over the course of the season.
- In addition to trading for experienced players Walker Zimmerman, Benny Feilhaber and Laurent Ciman in the offseason, he subsequently traded for coveted players Lee Nguyen and Christian Ramirez during the season, all within MLS.
- Signed Carlos Vela, a slam dunk of a Designated Player (excused the mixed metaphor). Diego Rossi looks like a player whose ceiling is very high, as he’s forging a good first season in MLS. Jury’s out on Andre Horta as the third DP, but it’s still early, and if he finds his footing, could be three-for-three success-wise on initial DP signings.
- Signed Adama Diomande at the first transfer window deadline, who then went on to carry LAFC through the World Cup stretch.
- Signed Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey to free agent deals, both worthy pickups as they are regular starters.
- Acquired Marco Ureña, Latif Blessing and Tyler Miller in the expansion draft, all players who have been vital contributors (the other two players picked in the expansion draft were flipped for Ciman in a trade).
- Sold both Omar Gaber and Laurent Ciman abroad, picking up over $1 million in allocation money in those deals for players who wanted to leave.
To be clear, Thorrington isn’t doing this on his own. Head coach Bob Bradley, who Thorrington technically hired, has clearly played a role in determining the players signed, and the soccer operations staff is helping out as well, behind the scenes.
But in looking at other MLS teams with messy player acquisition records in recent times — expansion and not — it’s not a given that things will fall into place as well as they have for LAFC. The brain trust at the LA Galaxy struggled so much that Sigi Schmid had to fall on his sword, even as he was stating he wanted to keep working. The San Jose Earthquakes’ rebuilding project was so botched that they fired their coach less than a year after he was hired, and even then they may have kept him around way too long.
Minnesota United had the luxury of having an existing roster and someone in place for a long time in Manny Lagos and even their low-budget moves have overwhelmingly been busts, with the team finally starting to find something with a known star in Darwin Quintero. Yes, LAFC have the benefit of money bankrolling their roster, something Minnesota, who are also embarking on a new stadium project, do not. But small-budget teams need to be smart with scouting in order to stay competitive and they couldn’t.
The team frequently compared to LAFC, and for good reason, is Atlanta United. They also had a new stadium their first season and deep pockets bankrolling everything. But their main draw was their head coach, Gerardo Martino, who acted as a magnet to promising Latinx talent, and that snowballed into making Atlanta a destination where players wanted to go.
Surely, some of the appeal for LAFC was Bradley being the manager, but as highly as we think of him (and he’s done a fantastic job) his global name recognition is just nowhere near Martino’s. Even so — and with the benefit of Los Angeles as a global city attracting international talent — LAFC have built a roster that is competing, now.
As we’ve seen with LAFC’s blowout loss to Atlanta early in the season, and the shock departure of Ciman after the transfer window closed making the expansion’s side defense a bit thin with the business end of the season approaching, the roster as constituted may not be perfect. There is a real chance that LAFC could lose immediately in the playoffs and the shine on a strong debut season could be tarnished a bit. It did happen to Atlanta last year, after all.
But this season LAFC haven’t played like an expansion team, to the point where it’s basically never brought up anymore as an on-field concern. Bradley has put in the work and we’ll do an appreciation post at some point, too, because he deserves it. But from an unknown quantity to a guy who has basically not put a foot wrong so far, Thorrington has done a great job. It’s past time we give him credit for all that hard work.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!