Even after winning an MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double last year, LAFC faced questions about their depth and firepower over the winter, thanks to a stream of prominent departures like Gareth Bale, Cristian Arango, Latif Blessing and Sebastian Méndez. A corresponding arrival like Timothy Tillman, signed from German second-division side Greuther Fürth, perhaps didn’t exactly seem like a proportionate response from co-president and general manager John Thorrington and head coach Steve Cherundolo.
Seven weeks into the 2023 campaign, perceptions have changed.
The undefeated Black & Gold top the Western Conference standings in terms of points per game, have reached the Concacaf Champions League semifinals and have looked downright dominant at times. And Tillman has been at the heart of all that, producing some of the best midfield displays in the league in his first six MLS appearances, and tabbing two goals and two assists in 10 games across all competitions.
Safe to say he’s enjoying his Southern California adventure.
“It's really exciting at the moment,” the German-American told MLSsoccer.com in a recent one-on-one conversation. “I just wanted to get a new challenge, for me personally, but as well as a footballer.
“As I spoke to John and Steve and everybody in the club, I got to know a little bit about it. And as soon as I arrived, I had a great feeling of how this club wants to develop itself, how this club wants to develop the league, and how the club wants us players as well to develop here, and make the next step as an individual but also as a team. That's what it's about here.”
A prized product of Fürth’s academy system along with his younger brother Malik, who’s now on loan at Scotland's Rangers FC, and a regular call-up to German youth national teams, Tillman’s potential was such that Bayern Munich paid his club more than half a million dollars to acquire him at age 16. Even after suffering relegation from the Bundesliga after his return to Fürth, he would’ve had ample options in Germany’s top two divisions when his contract with the Shamrocks ran out this coming summer.
Yet he felt a persistent desire for something different, which made him receptive to LAFC’s pitch – even, he admits, with limited awareness of the North American scene.
“When I talked with Steve especially, I asked him a lot about the league, how the league wants to develop, how the level in the league is, what to expect, because I didn't know anything, to be honest,” explained Tillman.
“From my last years in Germany, I knew OK, I need something not as physical as only the second division in Germany, because I can’t play my game in the second division in Germany. But I also knew it's going to be hard to get into the first Bundesliga. I was looking for something maybe in between.”
It can only have helped that Cherundolo spent two decades at Hannover 96 as both a player and coach and can connect with him on multiple levels, language being one of them: “He speaks perfect German, I didn't expect it to be that good,” Tillman says of his coach with a smile.
“I'd say it's that Steve described [MLS] really good to me,” he added. “Like a mix between first and second division [in Germany]. It's physical but it's not too physical, it’s also got some aspects of tactics, and technical aspects as well. It's a nice league. I think we’ve still got space to develop, but I can feel everyone is trying really hard to get this done. I'm really happy to be here.”
Tillman also credits Cherundolo for helping him adapt quickly to a new team in a wholly new environment – “Steve was a long time in Germany, so he has a way of thinking German,” he says – and he’s gotten a thrill out of the diversity all around him, both at LAFC and across SoCal as a whole.
“I really like the city. There are so many possibilities, opportunities to do anything, so many good food spots, restaurants, but also just if you want to go to beaches – you can do anything you want here,” said Tillman, who lives in the Mid City neighborhood. “I really like LA and our club as well, we have so many cultures, so many influences from all around the world. It's just really nice being here.”
USMNT one day?
Tillman was billed as a winger as he rose through the ranks at Bayern. That was mostly a matter of pragmatism, however, given the competition for places at the Bavarian superclub. At LAFC he’s impressed as a do-it-all No. 8 in their aggressive 4-3-3 formation, covering acres of ground in both directions and surging into the attack to keep opponents inundated under their withering press and counter-press.
“Everybody develops in certain ways,” he said. “In youth I preferred to play as a No. 10, to be honest. But at Bayern, we just didn't have one, or had too many players who could play on the 10, but maybe couldn't play on the wing. So yeah, I played a lot on the wing there. Over the years, I came back to the center – started as a 10, but now I'm playing as an 8.
“I also learned how to work, with and without the ball. When I was younger, I was a good dribbler, but I hated to defend. And as the years went by, I learned to defend as well. So I think this number 8 role, especially in our system and way we are playing, just fits me, suits me well.”
That’s fueled intrigue about his suitability for a role with the US men’s national team, who have used a similar tactical structure for the past few years. His brother Malik has already notched two goals in four USMNT caps after beginning his international career with Germany, and Timothy announced a similar desire to switch allegiance to his father’s homeland back in 2018, when he took part in a US U-20s camp under Tab Ramos.
“So far, nobody contacted me. But of course I would be happy to get a call-up or to at least hear anything. That would honor me,” the elder Tillman told MLSsoccer.com. That said, according to multiple sources, he would need to file a one-time switch with FIFA to be eligible for USMNT selection due to several appearances for Germany in UEFA youth competition, and he has not yet done so.
So Tillman won’t be on the USMNT squad that will meet Mexico in the new Allstate Continental Clásico friendly series in Arizona next week. But the possibility of representing his new home is still out there – along with the dream of someday playing alongside Malik in a competitive match for the first time ever.
“It would be a nice story, of course,” he said with a grin.
In the meantime, he plans to live by the same piece of advice he gives his younger brother during their weekly trans-Atlantic phone calls: “It’s all about the next game.”
“The next game is always the most important one,” said Tillman. “And we'll see what happens.”