National Writer: Charles Boehm

"We don't take years off": LAFC enter busy offseason after MLS Cup heartbreak

LAFC huddle

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Though he was undoubtedly hurting inside, a fleeting flicker of a smile crossed Steve Cherundolo’s face as he answered the final question of his press conference after LAFC’s 2-1 MLS Cup final loss at the Columbus Crew Saturday evening.

With so many weighty decisions to be made in the next few weeks, the head coach had been asked how involved he would be in co-president and general manager John Thorrington’s work on shaping the club’s roster for 2024.

“Well, if John lets me, I'll be gone for a couple of weeks,” deadpanned Cherundolo. “But I'm not sure that's going to happen. No, we're very close on and off the field. So we'll be in touch daily. I'm sure both of us will go home and spend time with our families tomorrow, lick our wounds.

“But he'll call me Monday. I'm sure of that.”

Roster decisions loom

It's a particular quirk of MLS – and often a painful one for players receiving bad news – that whether you hoisted the trophy or fell short of it at the final hurdle, participants in the cup final have barely a day or two to deal with its emotional fallout before learning of their team’s roster decisions for the following year.

Reaching the championship game postpones that process, yet the offseason always arrives eventually, and this one will likely be one of the busiest in LAFC’s short history. Thorrington acknowledged “there's some decisions that are already made with contracts,” and those, mainly decisions about whether or not to pick up contract option years for the likes of Ilie Sánchez and John McCarthy, will be released Monday or thereabouts.

Star scorer Dénis Bouanga hinted at a new front for Thorrington and Cherundolo to deal with when he conspicuously mentioned the possibility of an outbound transfer on Saturday. Regular starters Kellyn Acosta, Maxime Crépeau, Diego Palacios and Carlos Vela are now free agents. The negotiations over Vela figure to be the most difficult, given his elevated place in the club’s identity and lore, and the fact he’s almost 35 and on a Designated Player contract. The club might prefer to shift him down to a Targeted Allocation Money level to open up a DP slot for a high-powered reinforcement.

“It'll be a conversation with Carlos as to what he wants, what we can do and hopefully that aligns and it continues,” said Thorrington. “Regardless of what happens moving forward, Carlos, not just for LAFC, but I think he’s been one of the best players in the history of the league. He deserves to be treated with that level of respect and time will tell in these next few weeks exactly what the future holds for both of us.”

Legendary Italian center back Giorgio Chiellini, 39, will reflect on the outlook of his mind, body, soul and family before deciding whether to extend his distinguished career one more year.

“It could be my last game. Give me a couple of days in order to know,” he said on Saturday. “I was very focused on that game. I was very focused on everything here. Now, I need to [take a] break for a little bit and just enjoy the family. I’ll go back to Italy and then I’ll have a final decision.”

Chiellini’s quick mastery of MLS minutiae was evident as he wryly noted he may prove the simplest box to check or not check for LAFC.

“There are a lot of doubts in our roster next season. I'm not just the only one, my situation is maybe one of the easiest; it’s about me,” he noted. “There's a lot of work for them to do. But I think that the club, the organization, has to be proud and is proud of what we have done in this season.”

"We try to win everything"

In the bigger picture, the Black & Gold must decide how much change is needed for a side that achieved amazing things in 2023, yet failed to take the final step and win hardware, which for many is the ultimate – perhaps even only – metric for achievement at a club of their scale.

“I think we need to exhale,” Thorrington told reporters outside the visitors’ locker room at Field.

“As you guys know, it’s well-publicized – not easy in our league to keep a winning team,” he continued. “That's another reason I think we have a lot to be proud of, to be in a final two years in a row a year after selling your top scorer [Chicho Arango, now with Real Salt Lake] and the things we had to do last year. And those conversations, just like we've done in years past, we'll have those now and we will do our best to put the best version of LAFC on the field in ‘24.”

While Commissioner Don Garber confirmed rumors of a fourth DP slot being added this winter are false, the wider rumblings of increased investment on rosters league-wide would surely be eagerly welcomed at BMO Stadium, where pay raises, activated bonus clauses and clamor for more playing time – all in a salary-cap league with various mechanisms around it – are the logical consequences of consistent success.

“I say all the time: We have to make some really tough decisions and they're not decisions I like making,” said Thorrington, calling it a “necessary evil” and part of life in MLS. “I wish I could have kept our team from last year all together. I couldn't. I wish I could keep this team together; I won't be able to. And that's just a function of the rules. We know it and it's not changing. So we just have to understand it.

“For us, the retooling is always having a competitive team in mind. We don't take years off at LAFC. We don't rebuild. We try to win everything. And we were in every competition this year. Unfortunately, we came up a bit short tonight.”

No MLS team has ever played as many matches (53) as LAFC did this year. Precious few have ever made it to a Concacaf Champions League final, and even fewer have fought off the struggles that usually follow, then eventually reached an MLS Cup final.

They were persistent, resilient and ambitious, and only reluctantly made compromises to fixture congestion like the decision to field reserves in US Open Cup action. It was notable when Chiellini harked back ruefully to how “we also lost in a stupid way against Monterrey the quarterfinal of Leagues Cup” even four months on from that 3-2 comeback loss to Los Rayados.


Next year won’t be quite so busy. Still, high-profile departures would pose challenges to those who remain, both on the squad and in the front office: Step up and fill the gap, or acquire others who can.

In that sense, the marks left by 2023’s waves of heartbreak may linger for some time, whether as scars that complicate continued competitiveness, high-grade fuel for the fire or some combination of both.

“In the end, it’s a lot of teams working for the same trophy. So we know how hard it is to win trophies,” said Vela. “But also we know how hard it is to be in finals. When you make three, you feel bad to lose all of them. It’s a really disappointing feeling, a really bad feeling when you are that close and you don’t win. You feel like you lost your chance – you feel like you lost one year.

“I think in the three, we were close. We were fighting, but for details, we blow the chances, and it is what it is. It’s a disappointing moment, but I always say, the only thing you can do is go with your head up and go for more. It’s the only way you can really be a good player, a good person.”

Some suggest it hurts worse to arrive so tantalizingly close to the ultimate prizes and fall agonizingly short than to simply be an also-ran. No chance, cautioned Chiellini with one of his trademark grins.

“Unfortunately we didn’t lift a trophy, and we are sad for us and for the fans. But we give our 100 percent every time,” he said. “We share fantastic emotions together. It’s better to lose the final than to lose in the first round, trust me. Because many times they say, no it's better to lose before – no, it's better arrive to a final. It’s a fantastic journey that remains in our mind and in our heart.”