As the clock ticked toward the close of the 2018 MLS Primary Transfer Window on Tuesday night, LAFC general manager John Thorrington wasn’t worried about finalizing the last few details of the trade that ended up bringing Lee Nguyen to the expansion club.
The only thing Thorrington joked could potentially scuttle the deal? The off-chance that New England general manager Mike Burns might fall asleep.
While Thorrington was working into the evening at his office at the LAFC training facility, Burns was in Europe on a previously-scheduled scouting trip. The Revs exec wasn’t just an entire ocean and continent away from Southern California, he was nine hours ahead of his LAFC counterpart, sitting in the lobby of his hotel through the wee hours to try to complete the trade.
“I was afraid he was going to fall asleep,” Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com with a chuckle on Thursday afternoon. “We could’ve agreed, and if he falls asleep at 4 a.m., it’s literally over, that’s the reality.”
Burns, of course, was never actually going to fall asleep before the trade was put to bed.
"I was just sitting in the hotel lobby. There was a lot of conversations and a lot of texts and emails with MLS and with LAFC, with our organization,” Burns told MLSsoccer.com on Friday morning. “And so it wasn’t anything glamorous. It was just that’s where I happened to be and that’s where the deal got done for me.”
Finally, at 5:25 a.m. local time, a little over an hour-and-a-half before the deadline, Burns ended his all-nighter. The paperwork was approved. The Lee Nguyen saga was over. New England sent the 31-year-old to LAFC in exchange for $700,000 in guaranteed allocation money and up to $250,000 in additional allocation funds if, per ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle, LAFC give Nguyen a raise or trade him in the summer.
The deal put an end to a dramatic, ongoing back-and-forth between the Revs and Nguyen. The attacking midfielder requested a trade from New England multiple times following the 2017 season. When the Revs didn’t deal him by the start of preseason, Nguyen held out, not reporting for the first three weeks of new head coach Brad Friedel’s inaugural training camp.
According to Burns, multiple teams expressed interest in trading for Nguyen during his holdout. Thorrington said that LAFC were in that group. The Revs, however, weren’t taking offers.
“We were not open to entering into any sort of negotiation or trade talks in the midst of a player holdout,” Burns said. “It’s a position that frankly I and our organization take, and that was the main reason at the time.”
Nguyen ended his holdout and returned to camp on February 9, but the Revs wouldn’t budge. Burns admitted that the club’s attitude changed after Nguyen’s holdout ended, but said that they wanted to give Friedel time to assess how Nguyen fit with the cadre of new players the team signed this winter before they began to seriously consider trading him.
A couple of weeks before the close of the window, New England had seen enough. Nguyen, who had 11 goals and 15 assists in 2017, hadn’t made a single gameday roster and the Revs had gotten off to a solid start. Burns began to put word out that Nguyen was available.
Once again, multiple teams were interested. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reported on April 15 that New England declined $750,000 in guaranteed allocation money from an unnamed Eastern Conference club in return for Nguyen. A source told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week that the unnamed team was the Chicago Fire.
Though Chicago offered more guaranteed allocation money than New England ended up receiving from LAFC, a separate source said that the Revs declined Chicago’s offer and took LAFC’s in part because they wanted to move Nguyen outside of the Eastern Conference.
Burns declined to comment on Chicago offering $750,000 in allocation money and said that the deal with LAFC “was the best decision for our organization” when asked if trading Nguyen outside the Eastern Conference was a factor in Tuesday’s move.
Thorrington offered a slightly deeper window into how GMs view intra- vs. inter-conference trades.
“When you look at a trade it’s closer to a zero-sum game within conferences because you’re competing against each other for playoff positions,” he said. “Logic would say yes, if all things being equal, you’d rather a player that can hurt you goes to the other conference.”
That line of thinking gave an edge to LAFC. Shortly after learning he was available, Thorrington and the club’s technical staff began “really deliberate, thorough” conversations to suss out their valuation of Nguyen. Thorrington then gave Burns a call to see if the two clubs were in the same neighborhood.
“A couple conversations are used to get a sense of valuations, and if they don’t align it’s a quick conversation or it’s a quick ‘No,’” Thorrington said. “We received them as well. Clubs call and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ You see if there is traction to the conversation and then it gets more formal from there.
“I don’t play fantasy sports, but I wouldn’t think it’s all that dissimilar from fantasy. Outside of those leagues where you get a tattoo if you lose, the pressure is slightly different [for us].”
After determining that their valuations were roughly aligned, Burns and Thorrington kicked their talks into higher gear. Discussions truly heated up in the final 24-48 hours before the close of the window. Most of the heavy lifting had been done by mid-afternoon on Tuesday, but a few minor details remained as the deadline approached, necessitating Burns’ early-morning shift in the hotel lobby.
In the end, they got the deal over the line. LAFC stacked another high-caliber piece on their already-potent attack and New England netted at least $700,000 in allocation money for a player that they didn’t appear to have any interest in using.
It was a happy conclusion to the transfer window for both GMs, but neither had much energy to celebrate. Thorrington, who finalized the signing of forward Adama Diamonde from Hull City on Monday night after LAFC opened Banc of California Stadium with Sunday's 1-0 victory against the Seattle Sounders, headed home and decompressed after “72 hours of non-stop activity.” Burns made his way from the lobby to his hotel room, crashing for 2 1/2 hours before waking up to fly back to Boston.
“Sometimes that’s what it takes, having that deadline to which both sides have to say, ‘OK, it’s either time to sign off on this or we go separate ways,’” Burns said. “I’ve been involved on both sides of this where it comes down to last minute and something doesn’t get done for whatever reason, but in this particular case, it did. Like I said, if we didn’t feel OK about the deal and if LAFC didn’t feel OK about the deal, then it certainly wouldn’t have gotten done. But at the end of the day, we both felt it made sense for both of our organizations.”
“It’s not atypical,” said Thorrington. “These negotiations are a back-and-forth; you give an offer and see whether it meets expectations. You learn a bit about both sides until, even the way I say it, you align on one dollar. We found that one dollar. A price they were willing to accept and a price we think is great value for someone we think is an immediate and big contributor to something we have going here.”