Diego Rossi’s potential club-record transfer to Fenerbache has been more than four years in the making.
Rossi was among the first players acquired by LAFC ahead of their expansion season, then to a Young Designated Player deal. A rising teenager in Uruguay, Rossi was the first in a clear plan of identifying young talent, developing that player and helping them move on to greater heights in their career when the time was right. Rossi, head coach Bob Bradley and GM John Thorrington spoke of this day while meeting together at a hotel in Uruguay ahead of Rossi joining LAFC.
The electric winger, now 23, hit the ground running. Rossi scored LAFC’s first-ever goal in their inaugural game, the only tally in their first-ever win. Rossi played an integral role in the club’s record-setting 2019 season, winning the Supporters’ Shield en route to setting a new league record for single-season points. With reigning MVP Carlos Vela sidelined for most of 2020, Rossi earned a Best XI selection, won the Golden Boot presented by Audi and was named MLS Young Player of the Year.
“From the day he arrived, I supported him with the idea that some day he would go,” Bradley told media on a virtual press conference. “The job was to push him, challenge him and help him get better. I feel like the two of us had a really good working relationship and I’m really proud of him.”
It’s also fitting that Rossi is the first major outbound move, given he was the Black & Gold's first player signed with this vision.
Compatriot Brian Rodriguez was loaned to Spanish second-tier club UD Almeria last February, though returned in the summer after a tepid half-season. Rossi is technically on loan to Fenerbahce, but sources tell MLSsoccer.com the overwhelming expectation is that this move will become permanent.
“It’s an exciting day for LAFC, it’s the fulfillment of a plan and vision in place from day one,” said Thorrington, who's also the club's co-president. “To identify young talent, develop that young talent and move them on in a way that’s beneficial for both the player and the club. It’s not lost on us that Diego was the first player apart of that vision. He was signed with this exact plan in mind.”
LAFC have since acquired several players 22 or younger with this model in mind. Eduard Atuesta, Jose Cifuentes, Francisco Ginella, Diego Palacios and Rodriguez have been the club’s higher-profile young acquisitions since Rossi.
Rossi’s move came as windows across Europe were closing for the summer, something that happened in MLS nearly a month ago, meaning LAFC are limited in options to use their valuable DP spot to bolster their squad for the remainder of 2021. MLS clubs can only sign free agents ahead of the 2021 Roster Freeze Date of Sept. 15, given the Secondary Transfer Window has passed.
Still, LAFC were expected to lose Rossi far earlier than this week. The COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent negative financial reverberations at clubs across the globe, altered those plans.
“Of course it’s frustrating with the timing,” Thorrington said. “Not just with the windows not aligning in that we can’t use this spot in the immediate-term unless it’s a free agent, but it’s out of our control. This is not ideal timing, I can recognize that, but there are factors outside of our control. When you look at this transfer market this summer, it’s still stagnant and depressed. For us, we couldn’t choose the timing. If you would have predicted when this move would have happened, I would have been talking about a year ago.”
With Rossi in Turkey getting settled and gearing up for his Süper Lig and Europe League debuts, LAFC’s season marches on. Sitting three points below the playoff line with 13 games left in a crowded Western Conference, time is of the essence to turn things around, without last year’s league-leading scorer and Vela hurt again.
“The timing of the summer window in MLS is difficult,” Bradley said. “If you lose players in the middle of the season, or after the middle of season… it’s difficult. It’s just something that’s part of the situation.”
One reason for encouragement is the form of Rossi’s compatriot.
Rodriguez, the uber-talented yet at times frustrating Uruguayan international, hasn’t hit the boxscore heights the eye test or his talent level would suggest after he arrived at LAFC midway through 2019. He has only four goals and seven assists in 32 appearances, as well as that disappointing loan move to Almeria earlier this year. But before he departed for international duty this week, Rodriguez had his best game in MLS yet against the LA Galaxy.
The winger scored a brace, including a potential AT&T Goal of the Year candidate, in the second half as the El Trafico rivals played out a thrilling 3-3 draw. Without Rossi, and Vela injured for “weeks, not days” according to Thorrington, he’ll be the centerpiece once he gets back stateside after September World Cup Qualifiers.
New signing Cristian “Chico” Arango, who scored his first LAFC goal against the Galaxy, will be leaned on as well.
“I’m excited to see Brian step up,” Bradley said. “Chicho has caught on quickly to the things we try to do, so that part is good. Cifu this year in moments going forward has been very good. Then you wait to see.”
When healthy, LAFC's squad still includes a number of key pieces from their peak 2019 season and 2020 Concacaf Champions League run. Vela, Eduard Atuesta and Latif Blessing still make up the club’s core, leaving them optimistic moving forward.
“Losing Diego will require others to step up, we’re confident in the group we have,” Thorrington said. “We believe we’ll keep this core intact and make a strong push through the latter part of the season.”
In the long-term, LAFC will have plenty of flexibility this winter. They also have a lot of questions.
Head coach Bob Bradley is out of contract after the season, according to The Athletic, as is Vela. The Mexican star is keeping his options open and didn’t turn down the possibility of a move back to Europe this winter in a recent interview with TUDN. Rodriguez seemed gone when heading to Almeria, while Atuesta had serious interest from Copa Libertadores champions Palmeiras in the offseason.
It’s sure to be an interesting few months around the club, but with Rossi, Walker Zimmerman, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Adama Diomande and others gone, and with the future of Vela and Bradley uncertain, LAFC have one foot in a new era.