LAFC currently sit with a perfect record, 2-0-0, in this inaugural season. They took a deserved three points on the road in Seattle and then manhandled RSL in Utah. After two big wins, it had many wondering if they could sustain the success throughout the season.
The conversation generally would go something like this:
“Yes, they can – they have an excellent starting lineup, a good coach, and a couple star players who can create magic at any moment.”
“Yeah, but they have no depth – it’s a big drop off after the starting group. If anyone in the starting XI gets hurt, particularly the attackers, they are in trouble.”
Well, on Tuesday, LAFC addressed that concern in a big way. The Black & Gold purchased Portugal youth international Andre Horta from Portuguese powerhouse Benfica and locked the midfielder into a four-year deal starting on Designated Player terms. Horta, who has spent the 2017/18 season on loan to Braga SC in the Portuguese top division, plays central midfield, attacking midfield, and on either wing. Reports suggest the purchase price could reach $7 million.
This is a nice move by LAFC, even if Horta will likely join Bob Bradley’s group in July, after his loan to Braga ends. It demonstrates both ambition and problem-solving. Observers around Portugal football call Horta one of the best young players in the league. It continues the trend of young talent joining MLS: Ezequiel Barco, Jesus Medina, Jefferson Savarino, and the man they call Kaku have all been purchased by MLS teams within the last 12 months. It’s always fun and exciting when a new good player joins the league, but Horta offers a slightly different twist to the story.
Horta comes directly from a Champions League team in Europe. MLS has developed an intermediary pipeline between South America and Europe, with young stars hoping to use MLS as a launching pad to the biggest leagues in Europe. We’ve rarely seen, however, a player come from one of the bigger teams in Europe for this early part of his prime.
It’s a difficult feedback system: MLS doesn’t have a strong link with Europe, so European managers, teams, and players don’t hear that much about MLS, and consequently, they don’t know how to evaluate MLS, and they remain hesitant to interact with MLS. If an MLS team then inquires about getting a player from Europe or sending a player to Europe, the conversation stutters. Players either ask for an above-market rate to join MLS, or teams offer a below-market rate to buy players. When clubs have to make multi-million-dollar decisions, they will often resort to ones they are comfortable with.
Every player who comes from or goes to Europe helps break the roadblock. It’s something that’s been said for decades regarding North American soccer, and it’s still a work in progress. Teams around Europe will now check in on Horta and become familiar with other MLS clubs and players; they will be able to gauge the quality of players compared to someone they’ve tracked for a few years; as MLS becomes more intertwined with big European clubs, it will create a freer flow of assets between the markets.
It will be easier to both bring high-quality players into the league, and provide new opportunities for developing American and Canadian players. Both of those are good things.
You usually can’t break down a wall with one switch; you chip away with a sledgehammer, and Horta’s decision to join LAFC impacts more than his own career. It’s a big deal – though on a different level than a 27-year-old Sebastian Giovinco signing directly from Juventus – that should have a reverberating impact. In the short term, teams should be worried about LAFC continuing to strengthen a formidable roster. In the long term, though, they should thank LAFC for taking a big swing at a wall every team wants to break down.