Years from now, when we look back at LAFC’s first game, we’ll probably think about big stars, a beautiful stadium and a serious amount of fanfare.
John Thorrington will remember a few 12-year-olds playing on a weekday morning in suburban Dallas.
LAFC are still two years away from the bright lights of their 2018 MLS debut, but the club hit a major milestone on Thursday morning, when its Under-12 academy team played the first match in club history at the Generation adidas Cup in Frisco, Texas.
Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president of soccer operations, is in Texas for the 7-v-7 tournament, where LAFC will meet U-12 teams from Spanish side Celta Vigo, Toronto FC and Orlando City.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” he told MLSsoccer.com by phone last week. “It’s sort of the first competitive game in our history. I think it’s a great opportunity for these players.”
The tournament is the first tangible marker in LAFC’s progression from a brand name to a living, breathing soccer team. It’s also a reminder of just how much work the 36-year-old Thorrington, a Southern California native and former MLS midfielder who was hired by LAFC in December, has in front of him.
As the leader of LAFC’s soccer staff, Thorrington is responsible for helping land a head coach, signing Designated Players and filling out the roster for the first team, assembling a staff and a roster for a potential USL franchise, and setting up the club’s academy.
With MLS still 23 months off and a potential USL team not due for at least another year at the absolute minimum, Thorrington and LAFC have put most of their early focus on the academy, which currently consists only of the U-12 team.
They don’t yet have an academy director, but LAFC have hired a U-12 head coach, an academy manager and an academy executive director, who is managing the academy’s off-field business. They’re in the process of contacting area youth clubs about potential partnerships, with Thorrington making a point to “reach out to everybody” in the talent-rich LA area with the message that LAFC are “here to be a good neighbor.” LAFC are also batting around the idea of opening a high school for their academy, something the LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union have both recently done.
On the field, Thorrington and U-12 head coach Joey Cascio (pictured above) are focused on building the youth team ahead of the start of the 2016-17 US Soccer Developmental Academy season in September. Cascio has been leading the group in several training sessions per week for the past couple of months. He and Thorrington will finalize the roster late this summer, with the club expecting to add several new additions to the core group of players currently competing in Texas.
LAFC will add more academy teams next year, and Thorrington says that the club will likely start forming some older groups then to give them some lead time ahead of the 2017-18 USSDA season.
Regardless of how many teams they have, how old their players are or what outside clubs they partner with, LAFC are looking for one thing from their academy: A solid foundation.
“It starts with our philosophy, which is that we want our academy to form the backbone of our first team,” said Thorrington. “I look at these 12-year-olds and I’m incredibly jealous. They’re getting our full on-field focus, these kids are getting 100 percent of that. And I think that is just us acting on our philosophy and mission to really create the next few generations of talent, not just for our team but for our national team.”
Real, measurable progress is taking place at the academy level, but the timelines are a bit more extended for the first team and a potential USL squad.
USL is the more immediate concern. Thorrington says that LAFC are currently in “conversations” about the exact timeline for possibly operating their own franchise, and that he thinks it’s possible to have a team playing in that league by the time the club joins MLS in 2018.
“There are so many strategic advantages and competitive advantages to when you can have a USL team,” Thorrington said. “We just see that as a critical step on the pathway of the development of our players that will be coming through our academy.”
The most important part of the club – the first team – is currently a bit on the backburner for LAFC. Thorrington says they’ve begun the process of searching for a head coach and players. They have received plenty of interest in the head coaching position in particular, but aren’t in any rush to appoint someone, content instead to wait and ensure they make the right hire.
“Agents and coaches have reached out to the club,” he says. “I guess I’m comfortable saying that it’s a really appealing job for reasons I probably don’t even need to go into, and the challenge for us is less a recruiting one and more a sort of sifting through and finding the right candidates from a pool of people that are already interested.
"And then certainly we’re going to do a lot of outreach on our own when it’s sort of appropriate contractually on the [interested coaches’] side. We will be very proactive and out there and making sure we get the right guy.”
Whoever LAFC bring aboard, the head coach will be tasked with fitting into their organizational culture, not the other way around. That culture is, of course, still coming together, but Thorrington has a clear vision for how wants it to look. His goal is for LAFC to fit Los Angeles, in all of its glamor, glitz and grit.
“I think the teams that fans most readily identify with are those that represent what is great about their city,” he says. “LA is fast-paced, it’s creative, it’s beautiful, it’s aesthetically-pleasing and you do have all those things that I think is sort of the Hollywood side of LA.
"But when you actually talk to people that are from LA, there’s this grit to it that I think will be sort of the substance of our team, which will be very aggressive, front-foot, dynamic. Then it’s about sort of balancing that substance with the more stylistic aspects, and wanting to be a team that our fans want to come out and enjoy watching.
“Our objective is to represent our city, to represent our fans and put a product out there that our fans and our city will be proud of.”