Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

What the 2023 MLS season meant for LAFC


Last winter, LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington knew what he was staring at when looking ahead to the 2023 season: The chance to make history in myriad ways.

  • LAFC were playing in five different tournaments and were probably the favorite (or among the favorites) in all of them.
  • They were the defending MLS Cup champions and had the chance to be the first team in the MLS 3.0 era to go back-to-back.
  • They were transitioning to a new era, with a new centerpiece and a new game model.
  • They were loading up on young players with big potential and had the chance to become, virtually overnight, a club known for their elite development.

In the end, I think it’s fair to be disappointed with the club’s output, by and large. For one, none of the young players – foreign or domestic – really hit, and for two, they did not, in fact, go back-to-back, as Columbus were the much better team Saturday evening in Ohio (and yeah, “in Ohio” tells you what you need to know about LAFC’s regular season).

That 2-1 setback marked LAFC’s third loss in a final this season, following on the heels of the Concacaf Champions League (they were favored vs. Club León but lost both legs) and the Campeones Cup (they played well enough against Tigres UANL, didn’t have the firepower to find a winner, and eventually lost in penalties). They didn’t advance past the Leagues Cup quarterfinals, as they instead dropped a 2-0 lead en route to losing 3-2 to CF Monterrey. And they suffered an early exit from the US Open Cup at the hands of their rivals down the 110, adding just a bit of indignity to a season of unfulfilled promise.

I think there’s a lot of pain in the above for LAFC fans, and I get that – everyone knows it’s hard to watch your team lose a final.

But here’s the flip side: Man, they got to three separate finals in a year! (As the first MLS team ever to lose three finals in a season, you could argue they did, in fact, make history. Mission accomplished!). There are MLS teams who have been in the league for almost 30 years and don’t have that many trips to the big game.

And for the first two months and final two months of the season, including the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, LAFC were great. And Steve Cherundolo’s game model doesn’t inspire poetry, but it makes sense for their personnel and it works. And they have flexibility to go out and get more pieces, and they have proved their ability to attract big-name, game-changing stars, and while none of the young guys have HIT hit, a few of them showed a good amount of pop.

To borrow a line from a friend: two things can be true at once. In this case, it’s that LAFC’s failures in the biggest moments were miserable, but their season was very good (bordering on excellent). It’s also that the inability to immediately get production from the kids is worrying, but the simplicity and effectiveness of the game model is heartening (I would expect massive steps next year from the likes of Mateusz Bogusz and Cristian Olivera, plus maybe Nathan Ordaz and Stipe Biuk).

It was a good year that set LAFC up to be competitors for the next half-decade. It was a bad year because this team was supposed to win something – anything! – in 2023. And they didn’t.

It’s all true.

Formation & Tactics

When Cherundolo arrived before the 2022 season, he immediately got to work stripping down the bells and whistles and extraneous, ball-dominant gadgets that had been a hallmark of Bob Bradley’s teams, installing a transition-based plan built around a swarming front six and the open-field ability of winger Dénis Bouanga. They cut away all the fat and mitigated just about all the risk. Ruthless and direct.

LAFC were still slightly above 50% possession on the year, but unlike certain possession-heavy teams (Seattle, Houston and the Crew, all of whom LAFC met during the playoffs), it wasn’t because they wanted the ball: it was because opponents were terrified to try to possess against them. So they had to figure out how to break down a lot of bunkers this season.

Of course, that wasn’t the case against the cream of the crop, and LAFC’s own possession percentage against Seattle, Houston and the Crew in the playoffs was 30.8%, then 29.6% and lastly 38.6%. They were always, always happy to let opponents be the protagonists.

LAFC forced more turnovers in the attacking third than anybody but the Red Bulls and were third in the league in field tilt (share of passes hit in the final third). They crossed less than anybody in the league and were among the league leaders in through-balls.

The underlying numbers said it all worked very well, and that the Black & Gold were one of the four or five best teams pretty much all year. I think that’s correct.


I don’t think the vibes ever got higher than the CCL semis against Philly. There was a sense around the league that this was going to be the Union’s revenge moment – the chance to knock LAFC out of continental play after the heartbreak of losing the 2022 Supporters’ Shield on a tiebreaker and MLS Cup in the most dramatic fashion possible.

Didn’t happen. The Black & Gold went to Chester and walked away with a 1-1 draw, then smoked Philly in the home leg:

I 100% believed LAFC were going to win CCL after this, and that we’d immediately have to pivot to “should this now be considered the best MLS team of all time?”


Didn’t happen that way, though, did it?

Blowing a 2-0 Leagues Cup lead to a Monterrey team that’s really not great with the ball – like LAFC, they’re always more comfortable on the break – is still a head-scratcher, but it doesn’t compare to the rug being pulled out by León.

La Fiera are a good team, but hardly a juggernaut. And yet they left no doubt, making LAFC the first-ever MLS team to reach the final and then find a way to lose both legs.

So no, we didn’t ask many “should this be considered the best MLS team of all time?” questions after that.


Bouanga’s stats across all competitions: 38 goals/14 assists in 48 games, equaling Carlos Vela's MLS calendar-year goals record (all competitions). He won the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi, the CCL Golden Boot and tied for the goalscoring lead in the playoffs – plus put up 6g/3a in three Leagues Cup games.

This goal against the Sounders is the ne plus ultra LAFC goal from 2023:

Everyone expected Bouanga to be good (even when he struggled to put the ball into the net upon his arrival last year, I repeatedly pointed out how he was getting into great spots and the underlying numbers loved him).

But everyone expected $5 million good. He was $25 million good.


Summer signing Mario González was not.

The Spanish No. 9 arrived midseason on a TAM deal, and was supposed to be the extra juice the attack needed – the difference between that Club León flameout and hopefully brighter days to come.

He managed just 1g/2a in 534 minutes across all competitions and by the time the playoffs came, he was behind both Vela and Ordaz in the pecking order.

2024 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Bouanga (LW): The most lethal open-field goalscorer in MLS history, I think.
  • Olivera (RW): Showed a ton of potential and his productivity should climb.
  • Jesús Murillo (CB): A written-in-pen starter who was probably the best all-around player on the field in MLS Cup.
  • Ryan Hollingshead (RB): Even as he hits his mid-30s, he remains a match-winner.
  • Timothy Tillman (CM): Had a solid two-way season after moving over from the 2. Bundesliga.

Offseason Priority

Thorrington’s got a full plate.

Vela, and three other starters – central midfielder Kellyn Acosta, left back Diego Palacios and goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau – are all out of contract. I would not assume they will all be back, as Palacios and Acosta have both spoken about their desire to play in Europe, while Vela is now at the point where he just doesn’t quite fit anymore, and certainly not as a full-fledged DP.

Could they get him to come back on a TAM deal in a super-sub role? I think that’d make sense for two more years, but it’s a big ask of a guy who’s spent most of his time in LA as the face of the club.

Even as they sort all of that out, they have to arrange a young heir to Ilie Sánchez at d-mid, try to talk Giorgio Chiellini into one more year and figure out if González is actually a solution at the 9. If he’s not, can Ordaz grow into the job? (They can’t do the Vela false 9 thing again; they just can’t). That’s a lot to bet on a kid!

Here’s the good news: LAFC have at least one DP slot open. If Vela comes back on a TAM deal, then it’s two. Would it make sense to offer Palacios a DP deal that’s below the max TAM threshold? Doing so would preserve LAFC’s ability to use all the U22 slots (as the rules are currently constructed, anyway), and save $1 million in xAM while also keeping their virtually irreplaceable left back in town for several more years. Or keep Vela as a DP under the max TAM threshold – either way preserves roster flexibility.

And with that roster flexibility… look, LAFC have been to five cup finals of various sorts and won one of them. The climactic goal in that one was scored by Gareth Bale. He was not a model DP, but he was the kind of big-name, big-game star this team desperately needed in 2023.

I kind of suspect they’ll figure out a way to add a similar piece for 2024.