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LAFC’s next Designated Player? Most likely to be a youngster

The reason is simple: The rules.

MLS: MLS Cup Championship-LAFC Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

LAFC had a busy day for their roster on Monday, headlined by the retirement of Gareth Bale after a short half-season stay at the club. During the first media availability of the 2023 season on Monday, LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington walked through some of the likely repercussions on the roster for the coming season.

Thorrington claimed that Bale’s decision to retire was sudden and LAFC had planned for him to report to preseason training camp. The Welsh superstar joined LAFC last summer on a one-year contract, that was a team-friendly Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) deal. Had Bale decided to continue past this summer, his contract would automatically convert into a Designated Player deal.

But there were concerns about Bale’s durability and ability to reach consistent 90-minute fitness, which Thorrington acknowledged.

“We were planning on having him here this year and had plans on incorporating him as we did last year,” Thorrington told reporters. “I think the frustration mostly for Gareth, but for us is things were a bit stop-start at times. And I think there was temptation where that frustration would win the day, when we talk about the narrative of what Gareth Bale’s time at LAFC meant here, but at the end it worked. That’s all. I mean, we have an MLS Cup — because of everybody — but without him we don’t have an MLS Cup.”

If Bale truly hadn’t planned to retire until recent days and LAFC had not planned to have an open DP slot to use as they wish moving forward, it seems likely the slot will not be filled in the primary transfer window.

However, Thorrington explained the third Designated Player on LAFC’s roster must be a Young Designated Player, based on the current makeup of the squad.

“If we do sign a Designated Player, it has to be a Young Designated Player because we have more than one Under-22 [initiative] player. We actually now have with Stipe [Buik] and [Jose Cifuentes] and [Diego Palacios], we still have three so if we do it, it would have to be a Young Designated Player,” said Thorrington.

Per MLS rules, if the third Designated Player is over the age of 24 and makes more than $1,612,500, teams can only have one U-22 Initiative player. The U-22 Initiative allows teams to sign young prospects and only get charged a maximum of $200,000 on their salary budget for the year, so the difference between one such signing and up to three, with a 3rd DP who is a Young DP, can be significant.

In effect, MLS wants teams to sign young up-and-comers, so they incentivize teams to both sign a Young DP and U-22 Initiative players by making those players’ cap hits lower than for older players.

And LAFC are trying to take advantage of the U-22 Initiative. Both Cifuentes and Palacios were key players in the double-winning season for the black-and-gold in 2022, and expectations are high around Buik, a newcomer from Croatian outfit Hajduk Split and a hyped youngster in his native country.

Meanwhile, it is possible that Cifuentes and/or Palacios could be sold in the coming months. If that changes, it is possible that LAFC’s strategy could pivot, and with Buik their only U-22 Initiative player, they could sign an older player to the 3rd DP spot. But Thorrington indicated the most likely track would be to add a Young DP so the club could maximize their U-22 signings as well. But time will tell what happens.

“With regards to the roster and composition, there’s still quite a few moving parts with inbound, outbound interest that we’re still waiting for, everything to happen and move to gain absolute clarity,” said Thorrington. “As to where what we’re going to do and what will be possible, but I do foresee some more movement. I think today we saw the first round of additions. I don’t think we’re going to be announcing another four players by any means, but I do see some movement. It is well documented that some of our players have garnered quite a bit of interest. And they’re here until they’re not and as long as they’re here they will be critical pieces of of what we’re trying to achieve this year.”

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