This week, on SB Nation, is “What if?” week. And that leads to an interesting question for Los Angeles Football Club: What if they had started play in 2017?
Originally, that was the plan. When LAFC was announced at the end of October 2014, the original plan was to kick off play in MLS in 2017. It was even on the first run of scarves.
But eventually, the club decided to postpone their full launch a year, and in 2018 they kicked off for the first time.
So what if they had started in 2017 instead? I think history would be different on three very important fronts. Let’s walk through them:
They would need a temporary stadium
The big reason LAFC put off entering the league by a year was because of their stadium project. Banc of California Stadium was done in time for their first home game, and they became the first expansion team to play in their own brand-new stadium from the beginning.
By all accounts the stadium has been a success and it’s been a crucial component in LAFC gaining market share locally, something that is brutally tough to do in the busy sports and entertainment landscape in Los Angeles.
But what if they had gone about things like other MLS teams, and started play in a temporary home before making the move to brand-new digs a little later? What would have changed?
I’ll say right off the top LAFC would not have played at the Galaxy’s stadium. LAFC’s owners were extremely sensitive of being associated with the failed Chivas USA predecessor, and they took great pains to differentiate the club from the Galaxy. That’s where all the LA vs. Carson stuff really took off, and you can bet they wouldn’t have made the same mistake as Chivas and played in their rival’s home, too.
So what would that leave? Two sites, really: The Rose Bowl and the Coliseum. The Galaxy have played in both venues, but they spent more of their time at the Rose Bowl, and the Coliseum now being The Banc’s neighbor at Exposition Park makes it the obvious choice.
But while the Coliseum has history on its side, the stadium could hold over 93,000 before the latest renovation project began, and we’ve mostly passed the days of MLS teams playing in cavernous stadiums to decent crowds that nonetheless look dwarfed by the venue. 22,000 LAFC fans in the Coliseum is not the same as 22,000 at The Banc, and the optics, and the ability to really build an incredible atmosphere would still be present but not as successful as they are in the current venue.
There is the counterargument that maybe the extra space would have allowed LAFC to grow the fanbase faster. More capacity would have lowered ticket prices, space would be available to let in, say, 30,000, and maybe things would have taken off even faster? It’s possible, but I think it’s more likely the “magic” of LAFC would have been lost to an extent in any other venue, including the Coliseum.
Had LAFC started playing in the Coliseum in 2017, I think it would have been fine, but they might not have been such an instant success. Of course, some of that success came from the team and coaching staff assembled. Which takes us to...
Hiring a head coach
What if LAFC had launched in 2017? Would Bob Bradley have been the head coach?
It’s theoretically possible but I’m going to say it’s unlikely. And that could have changed everything.
If we rewind, Bradley signed a two-year deal to coach French club Le Havre in Nov. 2015. That alone would seem to rule him out for LAFC, but in Oct. 2016, he was hired to manage Swansea City, the first American to manage in the Premier League.
Bradley’s tenure in Wales didn’t last long, of course, and he was fired just before the New Year. Technically, he could have jumped over to LAFC to start preseason a couple weeks later and we’d be right where we are now.
But we know that’s not how it would have gone. There’s no way LAFC would have been waiting by the phone for Bradley to be fired without having hired a coach already. And even if they hadn’t, it seems very unlikely Bradley would have gone straight into another job anyway. The timing just doesn’t add up on both sides here.
Who would LAFC had picked if Bradley wasn’t available? I don’t have John Thorrington’s shortlist on me, but I think there’s a good chance Sigi Schmid could have gotten the job. Schmid was also coming off a departure, but he left the Seattle Sounders in July 2016, watched them go on to win their first MLS Cup, and publicly lobbied to coach again until he got another job about a year later.
There is the demerit that Schmid had a history with the Galaxy, although he hadn’t coached them since 2004, an eternity in MLS terms, and Schmid was an LA native and had deep roots in the era. There’s also a case to be made that by 2016, Schmid may have had the desire to keep coaching, but the league was passing him by in terms of his approach and tactics, and so the instant success he brought to the Seattle Sounders when they entered MLS in 2009 may not have been replicated with LAFC.
I hate talking about Sigi in negative terms because he was the winningest coach in MLS history, won two MLS Cups, three Supporters’ Shields, and five U.S. Open Cups for three clubs in the league and was by all accounts a kind man and a stand-up person. He tragically passed away in Dec. 2018, and he’s universally missed.
But do I think he would have matched or surpassed what Bradley’s done with LAFC? No. I think LAFC were very, very fortunate Bradley was available and I think he realistically is the only coach who could build what he has done.
So what’s the third part of this “What if?” trifecta? Glad you asked, it’s...
Signing that first superstar
If LAFC had started playing in 2017, would they have signed Carlos Vela?
This is the hardest one to call of the three here, to be honest. I think there’s a lot to make the case he wouldn’t have. He was a key player for Real Sociedad in 2016, when they pushed for a Champions League place, although they fell short and finished sixth in La Liga, qualifying for the Europa League instead.
In that 2016-17 season, Vela was 27, the approximate absolute peak of his career in broad-brush terms, and we know he loved La Real and San Sebastian, where he met his wife and started his family.
But we also know that Vela is his own man. Could he have been convinced to join LAFC for 2017? I think it’s possible, although maybe not likely. Would he have been picked for the 2018 World Cup if he had been playing in MLS for a year and a half? Maybe, but probably not. Would he have really cared? I’m not sure!
And in the absence of Vela, who else would LAFC have signed as their first superstar? Haha, like I can guess the perfect amenable superstar who’s available out of a hat. They would have gotten a star. Would he have been as successful in MLS as Vela? Possibly, but probably not. Vela is a unicorn. He’s more motivated and playing better than any other time in his career. Superstars who have this much sustained quality don’t grow on trees.
So maybe Vela would have come in 2017. Maybe another player would have been the marquee signing. But there was a real kismet in having Bradley and Vela team up together at LAFC that I don’t think any other duo could have realistically brought to the league, to be perfectly honest.
What do you think? Do you agree with my assessments? Let’s chat in the comments below.