Carlos Vela jump cele

Winning multiple major trophies in one season, like LAFC did with last year’s capture of both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, is a relative rarity in modern MLS. The Black & Gold are only the third club to do that double since 2009, along with the LA Galaxy in 2012 and Toronto FC’s 2017 treble triumph.

Winning that kind of hardware across multiple seasons is even more difficult. In a league where parity is baked in, squads that seem like ascendant dynasties can and do change suddenly, or dissipate altogether – like that all-conquering TFC side, or Atlanta United’s superb 2018 group. History shows that winning a championship doesn’t even guarantee postseason qualification the following year.

It is revealing of this year’s defending champs that they both recognize that reality and reject the restrictions it could impose on their outlook for 2023.

“We achieved a fantastic goal,” veteran center back Giorgio Chiellini told reporters after Saturday’s preseason win over Toronto at the Coachella Valley Invitational. “But we have to erase and start for the new season, for new trophies and new goals.”

Embracing expectations

As often as Alexi Lalas and other pundits like to debate the concept of the ‘superclub’ in MLS, they remain scarce in reality. Though LAFC aren’t necessarily using the word themselves, they sound ready to embrace the heightened expectations that it connotes as they seek to not only defend their league and Shield titles, but fight for additional honors both domestic and international.

“Mapping out all of the competitions, we, rightly or wrongly, try to win everything,” co-president/general manager John Thorrington said in a recent appearance on SiriusXM’s “United States of Soccer” show. “For us, creating a robust roster is our priority given the number of games we might play – up to 60 games this season. And add in travel and international fixtures, all the rest of it, it is going to be a challenge.

“In order to prepare for that challenge, we have definitely had a targeted approach as to the types of players who we think can be relied upon to play multiple games in some weeks, and do so at a consistently high level. So I'd say not just the Leagues Cup, but the Leagues Cup combined with Campeones Cup. We have \[Concacaf\] Champions League. We will try to make a good run at [US\] Open Cup, at Supporters' Shield, at playoffs, all the rest of it.”

Denis Bouanga goal celebration
Dénis Bouanga celebrates scoring in the Western Conference Final.

Staying hungry

One of the remarkable elements of LAFC’s 2022 success was their ability to maintain positive results amid significant roster churn over the course of the season. Even with a steady stream of ins and outs during both transfer windows, head coach Steve Cherundolo’s side only experienced one extended dip in form, a 1W-4L-1D swoon in late summer, and they vanquished that with a resilient march through the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

The sale of leading scorer Chicho Arango to Liga MX side Pachuca represents another big change, a gamble of sorts. Yet with ‘22 midseason arrivals like Chiellini and striker Dénis Bouanga already settled and now nearly done with their first full preseason, along with winter reinforcements Stipe Biuk, Aaron Long and Sergi Palencia, the ceiling of possibility may be rising at BMO Stadium anyway.

“Now we start with – especially the first XI from last season – we know each other and it’s important,” said Chiellini, “because we have found in a few moments the same stuff we did in the last season. We start from a good base. And then some other players are arriving to help us, Aaron, Sergi, Stipe, all the players who have arrived will help us a lot … step by step we will re-create a new group in order to win more trophies.”

In that regard, superstar talisman Carlos Vela likes what he’s seen of his team’s preseason mentality.

“The team came in with a lot of desire, more desire than other years,” said Vela in Spanish in a conversation with on MLS media day last month. “In the end when victory is proven and you go on vacation having the title, I think you say, ‘I want to repeat.’ I prefer that. So those other offseasons where you’re down, thinking that you’d done badly because the goal had not reached – in this case it was not. Completely enjoying the vacation, thinking about being champions and remembering the moments of the year and how much fun we had.

“That’s one of the things that motivates me to want to win. When you win, you enjoy more, you have more fun and everything gets better. I think you have to take that as motivation to have the same high bar.”

Chiellini - LAFC
Italian center back Giorgio Chiellini is among his generation's top defenders.

Chasing dynasty status

All this has made more realistic the idea that this organization could actually succeed where others – including and especially their crosstown rivals the Galaxy, at least since the days of Landon Donovan and David Beckham – have so often fallen short: Relentless, perennial pursuit of major achievements year after year.

“What was achieved last season, we’re all proud of and happy with. But players and staff and everybody at the organization is hungry for more, which is a great sign,” said Cherundolo in Coachella. “On top of that, I think we have a strong foundation that we’re going off of last season, which puts us in a very comfortable position this preseason. We can focus more on details and onboarding new players with our principles and game model.”

Truly challenging on multiple fronts will be extremely strenuous, and as Chiellini warned, perhaps even more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The new season starts with a bang in the form of a historic El Trafico at the Rose Bowl on opening day, and the far-flung journeying of a Champions League odyssey will kick in not long after. Some observers believe that MLS roster rules and salary budgets simply don’t encourage the level of ambition being batted around in Los Angeles.

But LAFC promise to give it a go.

“These rules, regulations are maybe something that's less than ideal for a team like ours, that wants more resources to be able to keep our team together,” said Thorrington. “The limitations will never be seen as an excuse at our club or used as an excuse. I think we understand the rules. We work within them and we then have to prepare as best we can to put a competitive team on the field come game one against the Galaxy and then very quickly going down to Costa Rica soon thereafter for our [first] Champions League game.”

In Vela’s words, “the desire and motivation are still intact. The team wants more, wants to continue demonstrating that we are the best team, that we want to play well, win, score lots of goals and make our fans enjoy. I think it’s part of the club's philosophy and what got us to where we were last year.”