Ahhh, the halcyon days of 2019. Remember those? Some things were a little bit better back then, especially at the Los Angeles Football Club.
Two years ago, LAFC were a buzzsaw and a hurricane rolled into one, cruising to the Supporters’ Shield with an MLS-record 72 points, posting the league’s highest-ever goal differential (+48) and tying the record for most goals scored in a season (85). They did so by splashing out on elite talent like Carlos Vela, yes – but also spotted and acquired undervalued assets like center back Walker Zimmerman and midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who reached career-best levels of form under head coach Bob Bradley.
Things didn’t end well in the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they were upset at home by eventual champions Seattle Sounders FC. That left a sour taste that played into the head-turning choice to trade away Zimmerman, the foundation of their league-leading defense, to Nashville SC for a hefty package of allocation money that winter. It was a bold move, and consciously so for a club aiming to climb from “best” to “even better,” swapping a bird in hand for the proverbial two in the bush.
The Black & Gold made another similarly big bet on Tuesday, sending Kaye to the Colorado Rapids for a comparably-sized asset haul. The Canadian international was one of their longest-serving players and arguably their most impressive project, vaulting from solid USL Championship starter with Louisville City to MLS All-Star at the heart of an aggressively proactive playing style in SoCal.
“Mark has been an incredible story for LAFC. And it's testament to him, our staff and everyone, just how it all came together,” LAFC co-president & general manager Thorrington told reporters on Tuesday. “He's come so far in such a short period of time. And it's tough, but it's the reality we have to accept when we live in a cap-constrained world that sometimes you have to make these difficult decisions.”
As difficult as the parting may be, on paper it can be deemed good business, considering LAFC’s rich return on their initial investment, a modest transfer fee to Louisville reportedly in the five figures. Much as they essentially doubled their money on Zimmerman, who’d cost them about half a million in allocation bucks to FC Dallas two years prior. Buy low, sell high and reinvest the proceeds, right?
“Losing a guy like Mark who has been a starter and such a big part of things will require other guys to step up, and our comfort level with the move requires that,” said Thorrington. “We understand now that others are going to have to step up and fill a big hole now, and while that is a big ask, we are confident that the guys that we have, as well as some new additions, will step up and hopefully finish the season in a really strong way.”
They do have options. Eduard Atuesta and Latif Blessing remain two of the league's top center mids. Ecuadorian international Jose Cifuentes has taken a marked step forward this year; Francisco Ginella may yet do the same. Youngsters Bryce Duke and Erik Dueñas are both highly regarded. And the proceeds from the Kaye trade can and will help fund other transfer deals, some already in the advanced stages like the reported move for Colombian striker Cristian Arango.
Some 18 months down the line, however, the Zimmerman trade doesn’t appear to have worked out as intended. Since his exit, the Black & Gold have averaged 1.45 points per game, a far cry from the 2.12 ppg of their Shield campaign, and have generally hovered in mid-table, hampered by recurring frailties in the back. Meanwhile, Nashville built a rugged defensive identity around the 2020 MLS Defender of the Year, who continued to ascend the US men’s national team depth chart.
Have LAFC underrated the birds in hand?
Here Thorrington, Bradley and the rest of the club’s leadership might note, with reason, such deals are often matters of timing just as much as choice. That any player’s value, both internally and on the market, is a fungible, dynamic thing (Nashville and Colorado greased the wheels with strong bids). That coveted players like these could eventually leave for nothing if salary negotiations don’t shake out.
Trading MAK also means deciding not to pay MAK. He’s long been considered one of the best values in MLS, performing at a level that far outstrips his annual wages, which MLS Players Union documents list at a shade under $250,000. That could only go on for so long. Nashville used Targeted Allocation Money on a hefty new contract for Zimmerman last summer; no such reward materialized for Kaye at LAFC, and it may have clouded the relationship between player and club.
“There's always different factors when you look at players. When Mark got here, it was an opportunity, and he picked up ideas quickly, and then he made the most of them,” said Bradley on Tuesday. “And then as time goes on, when players are going out with national teams, playing qualifiers, playing in Gold Cups, you're trying to assess where guys are in different moments. Where are they physically? Where are they in terms of the situation here? How do we keep moving things along?
“Mark-Anthony, his ideas on things were a little bit different than when he first arrived. He was still a team guy, still a lot into it, but there are other factors that he was considering. And he knew that there was interest in him from other clubs, he told me that. So again, how he found out, whether the agents are involved, but at a certain point, when a player is talking about the fact that there are other teams interested, then part of what we have to do is to assess what that means here.”
In the pre-COVID-19 world, LAFC might by now have received a bid or two from overseas suitors, considering his skill set and MLS’ rising profile on the global market. But the pandemic continues to kneecap the revenue streams of clubs around the globe, ebbing their financial muscle to pay substantial transfer fees. (This has also complicated the Angelenos’ plans of reaping windfalls on Uruguayan forwards Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez.) In the meantime Kaye is now well into his 20s, eroding his sell-on potential, and his patience.
“I would say 2020 and the first half of 2021 have been challenging,” said Bradley. “Because with the pandemic, some things that we thought might develop, whether it's selling guys, things have slowed down. And we know last year, 2020 was start-stop, start-stop, so many challenges.”
Kaye, understandably, is ready for a contract commensurate with his skills, and needs to play regularly as Canada hunt for a place at next year’s World Cup. The Rapids – who lately have been stockpiling MLS-proven performers like him – are expected to offer him a new deal in the coming months to keep him beyond the option year they hold for 2022. It’s unlikely they’d part with $1 million in GAM to acquire him if they weren’t optimistic about doing so.
Will importing newcomers prove a better use of LAFC’s resources than keeping MAK in the fold? That’s the bet they’re making, and they’re doing so with a team ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. Perhaps we’ll know whether it paid off when these two clubs next meet: A November 7 clash on Decision Day, the season’s final week.