When LAFC appointed Bob Bradley as their inaugural head coach in 2017, they had no players. They had no jersey. They had no training facility and no stadium. It was the first gigantic decision in a half year full of them.
And, man, did they knock it out of the park.
Bradley guided LAFC to immediate success, winning the 2019 Supporters’ Shield while setting a then-league record for single-season points. It wasn’t just the success. It was how they did it. Their brand of high-energy, possession-based, attacking soccer was enthralling. They were a must-watch team.
That 2019 season proved to be the high point and just two years later, after the Black & Gold failed to make the playoffs for the first time in their four-year history, LAFC and Bradley mutually agreed to part ways with the legendary coach’s contract expiring.
Reflecting on the four years that were, LAFC co-president and GM John Thorrington had nothing but positive feelings.
“Bob was absolutely the right decision,” Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “We went through a thorough and rigorous process. We had ideas of how LAFC would play, and Bob executed that vision and the grand ambitions we had to have immediate success.”
That Supporters’ Shield trophy is the only piece of hardware LAFC can point to – “only” isn’t meant to sound dismissive; Just 10 of the 27 clubs in MLS have won a trophy since LAFC entered the league – but Bradley’s real impact can’t really be quantified by the contents of a trophy cabinet.
Bradley helped execute a vision of what this club could be, long before Banc of California Stadium became a venue filled with special nights. This era of LAFC is the benchmark, both aesthetically and by way of performance, for the foreseeable future.
“When you go back over the four years, I think it’s been one of the best four-year stretches in MLS history,” Thorrington said. “In a club, much of our ambition was to set a trajectory as to what LAFC would be about and lay a foundation we could build on for sustainable success. In large part due to Bob, we have achieved that.”
And now, it’s time for a new era.
“The exciting part of our next step is taking the lessons learned, the foundation that has been laid and take this club to new heights,” Thorrington said.
It starts with a coaching search, but there are a ton of question marks around a very intriguing roster.
First things first, of course, is the coaching search.
“One thing that is key, a characteristic of very high priority is how LAFC plays,” Thorrington said. “Every coach is different and can tweak things, but the atheistically pleasing attacking brand of football that our supporters have come to love and expect, that is not going to change. We have a list of characteristics, that is a priority characteristic.”
Thorrington also noted that while they respect and understand the importance of MLS experience, that's not necessarily a prerequisite. They won’t disregard candidates who haven’t been in the league before. He said they’ll consider and interview candidates with and without MLS experience.
Another difficult balance to manage is a team with high win-now standards, plus a clear philosophy of developing young players.
“We have a unique makeup of our roster that requires a coach to be able to manage someone like Carlos Vela, who is a star, as well as be able to teach, coach and instruct players of high potential who are at the early phases of their career,” Thorrington said.
Speaking of Vela, like Bradley, there have been questions over the Mexican superstar’s future. His guaranteed contract is up after the year, though LAFC have a club option on his contract for 2022, sources say. Regardless, talks are ongoing over Vela’s LAFC future.
“We are in talks with Carlos and his representatives about what makes sense for him and for us,” Thorrington said.
Whatever happens with Vela, LAFC are not bereft of talent. The 2019 MLS MVP would be the foundational piece, but there are still plenty of other players behind him that could comprise a strong team – and there will be more to come.
LAFC are planning on adding at least one Designated Player this winter, pending what shakes out with the top of their roster. Diego Rossi is technically on loan at Turkey's Fenerbahce, but the assumption is that the move will become permanent to the tune of around $10 million. Uruguay international winger Brian Rodriguez has long had European aspirations and overtures from clubs on that side of the Atlantic as well.
While things could change, Thorrington said the focus is an attacking player for the current DP opening. He also noted it could be an in-prime player like Vela or a rising talent, like they’ve done with Rossi and Rodriguez in the past.
“We have the flexibility to look at both options, and we are,” Thorrington said. “You never make these decisions in isolation. You look at how the puzzle comes together based on what you have and changes you predict are coming.”
In addition to players atop the roster, there's a strong core of starters. Ecuadorian midfielder Jose Cifuentes took a big step forward in 2021 while 18-year-old center back Mamadou Fall was a late-season revelation. Eddie Segura, Jesus Murillo and Latif Blessing are part of a solid core, while summer signing Cristian Arango was an immediate smash hit with 14 goals in just 17 appearances.
“This is not a full rebuild, this is not a broken system,” Thorrington said. “This is an operation that we think could use some refreshing, so there will be a little bit more turnover than is typical for LAFC, but it is not wholesale.”
One name not necessarily written-in-pen on that list is Eduard Atuesta, among the league’s very best defensive midfielders. Atuesta was close to a $4 million transfer to Palmeiras last winter that didn’t come to fruition and he signed a one-year contract extension, keeping him tied to the club only through the end of 2022.
“We’re evaluating options for Eduard,” Thorrington said. “There is a lot of interest in Eduard, as there always has been, and if the right opportunity presents itself when he is moving this winter, we’re exploring that. If not, and Eduard is an LAFC player, we would welcome back arguably the best midfielder in the league. I do think there will be strong options for him to be transferred abroad, but all of that remains to be seen in these coming weeks.”
Talks of another contract extension are not currently active.
“I think for us, we are focused on a sale right now rather than an extension but can pivot accordingly,” Thorrington said.