LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Football Club has shown a belief in giving young players real game opportunities since their first MLS match.
It's a philosophy that shines through bright as day with the full release of MLSsoccer.com's 22 Under 22 list.
In all, LAFC placed four players inside the top 16 of the list, including 20-year-old Uruguayan forward Diego Rossi, who came in at third overall. And that’s by design.
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“If ever day [players] come in and on the field, they do the things that make them better and make the team better, I think there is a pretty good chance that those things will be spotted and will turn into playing time,” LAFC boss Bob Bradley said. “That is, in a way, a simple message for everybody.”
Speaking with reporters after training Wednesday, Bradley emphasized that his coaching approach — built around the idea that every player can improve on both a daily basis and throughout the season — isn’t modified based on a player’s age or experience level.
Even as the league debutants enter the business end of the season and vie for spots in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, the club has given starting slots and cameos to three or four of their talented sub-22 youngsters in every match.
“Bob just believes in me,” said winger Latif Blessing, who occupies the No. 11 spot on the list this year, ahead of teammates Andre Horta (No. 13) and Eduard Atuesta (No. 16). “Under Bob, I’m so on form now. He’s a very good coach and motivates me all the time, he encourages me.”
That many of these young players are continuing to see time is a credit not just to the players and the staff but to the front office who acquired them.
“Being competitive out the gates as an expansion team is challenging, but I think the challenge of being successful over a number of years is actually a greater challenge than one-off success,” club GM John Thorrington said via phone. “I think these players getting recognized is evidence of that focus of ours, that we wanted to get young talented players on the upswing of the bell curve of their career as opposed to on the decline.”
Thorrington, who compared player recruitment to risk management, explained the importance of remaining disciplined in the search to acquire young talent.
“Nothing is ever certain," he said. "You just have to do as much diligence as you can and stay very disciplined in terms of the profiles you’re looking for, which gives it the best chance of success when you then implement it into your group.”
Though he’s quick to point out that each of LAFC’s young players have had a varying rate of progress once they’ve arrived, Thorrington believes each has made strides toward their full potential thanks to Bradley and his staff’s tutelage.
“I’ve said from the beginning," he said, "when asked as to the reasons of why Bob was the right guy for this club and why this staff has done so well, is that I think [they] have a rare ability to not only manage and get the most out of the Carlos Velas of the world, but they are very good at developing young players.”
Thorrington paused and corrected himself.
“I actually wouldn’t even say they are good at developing young players, they are good at developing players, period," he continued. "So you are seeing 33-year-old’s that are improving and you’re seeing 19-year-olds that are improving. I see that as a competitive advantage for us.”
Veteran midfielder Benny Feilhaber — a player whom Blessing credits with helping guide him in his budding MLS career, first at Sporting Kansas City and now at LAFC — emphasized that the staff’s egalitarian approach to youth is crucial to the club's pursuit of trophies.
“[Bob’s] going to put the team that he thinks is going to have the best chance to win the game and it’s not about ‘let’s give this guy some minutes, let’s get this guy some experience.’ It’s all about the season and it’s all about winning now.”