MLS Today

Bale, Chiellini, Bouanga moves took LAFC to “next level”: GM John Thorrington


LOS ANGELES – John Thorrington, LAFC's co-president and general manager, has heard the question asked a few different ways over the last few months.

For the sake of simplicity, it usually goes something like this: Did your team need to make all those summer transfers, both incoming and outgoing?

Odds are Thorrington would do them all over again, he said, with the Black & Gold hosting the Philadelphia Union on Saturday afternoon at Banc of California Stadium for MLS Cup 2022 (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TSA Sports in Canada).

“Frankly, I don't think there's a GM that would have said no to the deals that we got with these guys, when you have an opportunity to sign these players,” Thorrington told David Gass on MLS Today.

Ins & outs

The main outbound moves:

Those subtractions created room for necessary additions, Thorrington said. And it’s a star-studded list that dominated headlines all summer as LAFC, already in the Supporters’ Shield race, reloaded even further.

The main inbound moves:

Gareth Bale has two goals across roughly 350 minutes in 12 appearances. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

In some corners, it was viewed as roster-maneuvering wizardry by Thorrington and his colleagues. In other corners, it was viewed as too much of changing a good thing, possibly derailing the Western Conference’s leading squad.

But with a second Supporters’ Shield in four years already secured, and LAFC on the verge of their first-ever MLS Cup, there’s a reminder that silverware can silence a lot of doubters.

“The position we are in now and our last two games, you're starting to see more as to why we did it,” Thorrington said. “I understand the question, and what I always say is we're not naive to the impact you have when you change things. Steve [Cherundolo] is a very recent player, as was I.

“But we did feel that to take this group to the next level, even with the success we had as we came into the summer, we felt like for this team to not only win Supporters' Shield but win MLS Cup, we thought that these changes put us in a better position to do so.”

Thorrington also pushed back on comments from Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner, from July, questioning how LAFC pulled off acquiring Wales (Bale) and Italy (Chilleini) superstars on Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) deals – and not DP ones – considering the wages they were previously on at some of Europe's biggest teams.

Tanner was fined by MLS an undisclosed amount for those comments, and Thorrington said he's since had a personal conversation with Tanner about the remarks.

"Is it surprising that we got Gareth Bale on a non-Designated Player contract and Giorgio Chiellini? Yeah, but we did," Thorrington said. "Any insinuation that it's anything other than that, I think is disrespectful and I take issue with, as do our owners. But I understand the question and the numbers for those who have access to them, they're all there."

Offseason strategy, core belief

But LAFC’s path to this moment isn’t just a byproduct of summertime wheelings and dealings. Another huge factor was seeking out MLS experience with wintertime moves. That involved bringing in the following key players:

Those are four pieces in head coach Steve Cherundolo’s likely starting XI for MLS Cup, and there was a clear purpose behind the additions considering past lessons learned – all after LAFC missed the playoffs in 2021 (ninth in West).

“It's added a level of MLS experience and know-how,” Thorrington said. “And then you add to that Carlos' experience, you add to that Chiellini's experience, Bale's experience, and we just really feel like that helps cultivate a really strong culture of guys who knew what it takes to win and train every day.”

The last main cornerstone is South American talent, an LAFC tenet since their 2018 expansion season. Star forward Cristian Arango (from Colombia’s Millonarios), center back Jesus Murillo (from Colombia’s Independiente Medellín) and two near-locks for Ecuador’s World Cup roster – left back Diego Palacios (from SD Aucas) and midfielder Jose Cifuentes (from America de Quito), both on U22 Initiative designations – all fit that category as likely starters against the Union. Center back Eddie Segura (from Colombia's Atletico Huila) is an injury question mark.

Cristian Arango, LAFC's leading scorer, addresses the media at MLS Cup 2022 media day. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Cherundolo's impact

All along, Thorrington said it was vital LAFC “didn't uproot our team” when making moves during the 2022 campaign. While the big names have brought varying levels of impact – Bale's yet to feature in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs amid injury troubles, Chiellini's not been an every-game starter at age 38, and Bouanga's scored both the Shield-clinching goal and a playoff brace vs. rivals LA Galaxy – Thorrington added the "intangibles these guys bring are priceless."

It's all occurred, as some may forget, with a first-year manager at the helm after it was announced now-Toronto FC coach Bob Bradley and the club, nearly exactly a year ago, mutually agreed to part ways. Bradley, LAFC's inaugural manager, was at the helm for 2018-21 and brought them a then-record-setting 2019 Supporters' Shield-winning season, as well as a trip to the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final.

Cherundolo, a former US men’s national team defender, was appointed last January after leading USL Championship (second division) affiliate Las Vegas Lights during the 2021 campaign. Even though Cherundolo didn’t have first-team managerial experience, that decision is looking like a solid bet considering he finished third in this year’s Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year voting.

“I think what we said at the time and I'll say now is a revolution was not needed,” Thorrington said. “I think Steve and our scouts and technical staff really identified things we could tweak rather than transform. And we did that.

“Steve's experience here in the building, he knew LAFC, enabled him to hit the ground running in a way that I think was really beneficial. It's the first time I've done it, but I've observed and when speaking to colleagues, change is hard.”

Steve CHerundolo
Steve Cherundolo led LAFC to a 21W-9L-4D regular-season record. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Eyes on the prize

Considering all the pieces, what’s left is LAFC following through on becoming the first team to win a Shield-Cup double since 2017 Toronto. Thorrington, a California native who was hired in December 2015 – then as their executive VP of soccer operations – acknowledged what’s at stake.

“We've been an ambitious club from the get-go,” said the 43-year-old executive. “We did not hide any excuses behind being an expansion club, a young club. We have gone after it from day zero and this is the prize in our league.”

In many ways, LAFC are still a young club (2022 is just their fifth season). But they’ve quickly risen to MLS elite status, and now a Hollywood ending before their own fans could await.

“Man, this would just be incredible for the club,” Thorrington said. “I've seen the blood, the sweat, the tears that have gone into actually building a stadium, building a team. It's almost paternal at this point, just would be so happy for this club, for its supporters, having seen what we've all poured into this and shown from day one. It would be an incredible achievement.”