The 2021 MLS regular season is officially over, culminating on Decision Day marking the end of the road for 13 MLS clubs ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. No more ambiguity: All focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
In 2019, LAFC delivered a regular season pretty much unseen in MLS history. They set a new single-season points record and Carlos Vela logged the best individual campaign in league history. It remains the best soccer I've ever seen in this league.
They did it in style, too. Every single game was must-watch. They had panache, defiant confidence that bordered on disrespect, high energy on both sides of the ball and so much more. Little did we know, Decision Day 2019 was the best it would ever be for this group, when we thought that was just the start.
LAFC lost in the playoffs to the Seattle Sounders. A few key players left that offseason and the highly-rated youngsters mostly haven't reproduced the same level. Then 2020 brought the pandemic and LAFC simply never got back to that level all year, with injuries, international absences and COVID-protocol absences at key times. They barely got in the playoffs and lost to Seattle again.
This year, their expected surge up the table simply never came. A 5-2 Decision Day loss to the Colorado Rapids left them ninth in the Western Conference standings to end the season, an unfathomable spot just two years prior.
There are so many foundational questions facing LAFC this winter.
It was kind of already a new era by September, right?
A few foundational pieces from the electric 2019 squad are already gone, headlined by Walker Zimmerman, Diego Rossi and Mark-Anthony Kaye. Kaye (traded to Colorado) and Rossi (loaned to Fenerbahce) left over the summer. Starters from that team, Tyler Miller and Adama Diomande, already left. So has Steven Beitashour.
LAFC have looked much different this year than in 2019, particularly so with Vela in and (mostly out) of the lineup. And further change is certainly coming.
Head coach Bob Bradley is out of contract this winter, with increasing speculation that he may actually leave. A couple organizations in MLS he has strong ties with (Chicago Fire FC, Toronto FC) having managerial vacancies only fuels that speculation. Rumblings are picking up pretty heavy towards Toronto, but nothing's definitive.
Vela is out of contract, too. He has flirted with the idea of returning to Europe for a bit. Bradley and Vela are the faces of this club and have been for long before they played their inaugural match.
LAFC's magical run captured a Supporters' Shield and a then-league-record for single-season points, all in their second year in MLS. We've taken for granted their ability and potential recently; it's easy to overlook how big of an achievement that really was. But with playoff losses to Seattle in back-to-back years, as well as a heartbreaking loss in the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final, it felt like this team was capable of so much more.
LAFC have made no secret about their macro plan: Acquire/develop young talent and when the right offer/opportunity presents itself, allow that player to move on. Rinse and repeat.
They did it with Rossi and tried to with Brian Rodriguez, who spent the first half of 2021 on loan at UD Almeria in Spain, but the purchase clause wasn't triggered and he returned. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, these deals would have happened sooner.
“Look, our model is based on investing in young talent and if the right offer for the player and club presents itself, is selling them," co-president and GM John Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com last winter. He's conveyed a similar sentiment in most interviews we've done.
Eduard Atuesta is a player who could fit that mold. The Colombian midfielder signed a contract extension this year after negotiations over a transfer to Brazilian giants Palmeiras ended without an agreement, but that lasts only through 2022. If they don't transfer him this winter (or sign another extension), Atuesta would be free to sign a pre-contract in the summer and depart on a free transfer.
They were looking for $4 million amid talks with Palmeiras. For a player of Atuesta's quality and age, that seems like an eminently fair asking price. Be it in South America or Europe, he has suitors.
Jose Cifuentes has taken a big step forward in 2021. The Ecuador international was acquired after excelling at the 2019 U-20 World Cup and was among the club's best and most consistent players this year. When acquired, the idea was for him to develop in MLS and likely head to Europe at some point. Is that time now?
Of course, Rodriguez has had eyes on Europe for a while. The Uruguay international hasn't quite put it together in MLS, with 6g/9a in 41 regular-season appearances, but remains a valued talent.
While Rossi is only technically on loan to Turkey's Fenerbahce, LAFC are operating as if he's permanently moved on. Agreements are never 100% official until contracts are signed, but the overwhelming assumption is that Rossi will stay at Fenerbahce in a deal worth around $10 million.
They intend to use that DP spot this winter. But where? It may be foolish to predict early with so many key questions up in the air, including the fact that it's not out of the realm of possibility they open up two more DP spots. But let's give it a go anyway.
Center forward Cristian "Chicho" Arango was an immediate hit after being acquired this summer and he seems to have solved their four-year revolving door at striker in Bradley's 4-3-3. Unless a coaching change happens, it'd be wise to look elsewhere.
If Vela or Rodriguez leave, a winger would absolutely be top of the shopping list, if not two. The Black & Gold's midfield lost a key player in Kaye, though Cifuentes stepped up to fill that role this year. They've also never really had a traditional No. 10; Andre Horta joined as a DP in 2018, but he was more of a box-to-box player. If Atuesta goes, there's a big hole in defensive midfield as well.
This will be LAFC's biggest offseason since ahead of their expansion year when Vela, Rossi, Atuesta, Kaye, Zimmerman and more all arrived to form the club's core.