MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Cristian Tello in, Brian Rodriguez out: Explaining LAFC's recent roster moves


It was another week of high-level maneuvering by LAFC, swapping in another new big-name attacker while sending out a Young Designated Player, as their roster refresh over the last two months has been seemingly nonstop.

So the big picture: LAFC have transferred Brian Rodriguez to Liga MX's Club America for a reported $6 million fee, plus a 20% sell-on. With that done, it opened the door for the club to sign winger Cristian Tello, as reported earlier this week by That deal is done and has been announced.

With Rodriguez gone and Tello on his way, a Hollywood summer for LAFC should now be complete. That last flurry caps off a couple of months that included a new contract for Carlos Vela as well as the additions of Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, Denis Bouanga, Sebastian Mendez and now Tello.

LAFC are cruising towards winning another Supporters’ Shield and are aiming to set a new single-season record for points (previous is 73 by New England in 2021). Their roster movement this summer has been among the league’s biggest stories, constantly updated as new moves materialized.

How have John Thorrington, Will Kuntz and company done it? How will the pieces fit? These are good questions (that I grossly asked myself so I could spend a few hundred words here answering them).

Before we get into the dry cap/roster explanation, let’s start with the more fun angle of Tello’s background and what he can bring to this group.

What Tello brings

The 31-year-old winger was with LaLiga's Real Betis until his contract expired this summer, making him a free agent. That's why LAFC can sign him after the league's Secondary Transfer Window closed on Aug. 4; MLS clubs can sign free agents until the Roster Freeze Date on Sept. 2.

Tello, similar to Riqui Puig (signed to LA Galaxy), was regarded as the next huge talent to break through Barcelona’s famed academy. He began his career there but never quite hit his potential and last played for the club in 2013-14, heading out on a couple of loans (to Portugal's Porto and then Italy's Fiorentina) before signing with Betis permanently in 2017. All told, he had 28 goals and 24 assists in 199 LaLiga appearances.

Often playing on the left, though also comfortable on the right or through the center, Tello gives head coach Steve Cherundolo another option in a star-studded attack. Vela, Bale, Bouanga, Chicho Arango, Tello and Mahala Opoku. There are a lot of different attacking combinations the club can go with.

I mean, just look at this depth chart.


That’s five stars plus a rising talent competing for three starting forward spots.

It’s a champagne problem for Cherundolo. It’s what every coach wants, but it’s still an issue that needs to be managed. All six of these dudes are going to expect to start Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoff games (LAFC qualified last weekend). None of them are going to be happy to be subbed off in a big moment.

Cherundolo has done a great job this year at rotating the correct amount, keeping the entire squad engaged and the top stars fresh.

Playoffs are chaos. I can’t wait to watch this team chase raising MLS Cup on Nov. 5.

Unfulfilled potential

Brian Rodriguez came to LAFC from Penarol as one of the top young talents in South America. He cost more than Diego Rossi – who turned into an absolute star in this league, a key piece on the Black & Gold's record-setting 2019 team and then 2020 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner before heading to Turkey's Fenerbahce in a lucrative transfer – and had consistently been picked ahead of Rossi for the senior Uruguay national team. That was the case even as Rossi was lighting it up for LAFC and Rodriguez, erm, wasn't.

That potential and talent was so tantalizing. This El Trafico goal from the 2021 season sums it up.

That's a $10 million player. That's a player bound for Europe. Again, this is a player already with 17 caps for Uruguay, despite being less than stellar in MLS...

... but it was just one of Rodriguez's eight goals over 55 MLS appearances, despite playing in a team that constantly was scoring goals. He went on loan to the Spanish second tier in 2021 with Almeria... where he had zero goals and one assist in 16 appearances (though only under 500 minutes).

Rodriguez didn't quite work out in MLS, but it's not over for his career. His talent/profile will create more chances to shine and develop, and it's why he was transferred for a $6 million fee. LAFC retain that 20% sell-on, a financial incentive (and belief) that Rodriguez will put it together in Mexico.

What about the roster/cap rules?

For right now and the rest of 2022, the easiest explanation is this: Tello slides into Rodriguez’s international and senior roster spots. He won’t occupy a DP spot, which is consequential in that the club can use up to three U22 Initiative slots. It also shouldn't cause a problem next season when it comes time to decide whether or not to pick up Bale’s contract option, which would make him a DP.

Vela and Bouanga are DPs. LAFC still have an open DP slot, but, as stated, that could be filled by Bale next year.

As for the U22 Initiative piece… left back Diego Palacios and midfielder Jose Cifuentes both hold those designations, while midfielder Francisco Ginella did before getting loaned to Uruguay's Nacional this summer. So if LAFC wanted to bring in another DP, with their U22 slots as constituted, that'd need to be a Young DP.

This all could change soon, as there’s an expected Cifuentes transfer for – at the latest – this winter, if not over the next week before most European transfer windows close on Sept. 1. Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion are most heavily reported to be interested in the Ecuador international.

In theory, LAFC could still have Tello be a placeholder for a DP spot and use up to three U22 Initiative slots because his cap hit is under the max-Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) threshold of around $1.6 million. But that over-explanation is moot because Tello is not currently a DP.

2023 decisions

If Bale’s option is picked up next year, he’ll be over the max-TAM threshold. In that scenario, with all three DPs then being senior players over the max-TAM threshold, LAFC could use only one U22 Initiative slot.

Decisions for the future, of course; they're not ones impacting this season.

As for that future: Figuring out allocation money assets is difficult around the league, and with money tied up in a few max-TAM deals like Chiellini and Bale, and any other players with a budget hit over the $612,500 (salary + transfer fee amortized), LAFC may need to replenish their stash.

The club received some assets in the summertime trades of Danny Musovski (to Real Salt Lake) and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (to New England Revolution), as well as some salary relief with Rodriguez’s transfer.

Seattle Sounders FC general manager/president of soccer Garth Lagerwey talked about this opening earlier this year when the club traded Brad Smith to D.C. United, essentially saying the entire $750k of General Allocation Money (GAM) was going to be used to buy down contracts on the cap to keep the squad together.

Good fun getting stuck into the roster rules/salary cap gymnastics, huh?