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Stejskal: For LAFC, Thorrington, offseason questions abound over defense

LAFC GM and EVP of soccer operations John Thorrington doesn’t expect his club to make too many transactions this winter, but the moves they will make are shaping up to be somewhat significant.

After a successful season in which they set the MLS record for most points by an expansion team before surprisingly bowing out in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs to Real Salt Lake, Thorrington, head coach Bob Bradley and LAFC could realistically lose four starters this winter.

Center back Walker Zimmerman, midfielder Benny Feilhaber and defender Jordan Harvey are all out of contract, and center back Danilo Silva’s loan from Brazilian club Internacional has expired. It’s no sure thing that any of the four will return to LAFC in 2019; Zimmerman has drawn interest from Europe, Harvey will be eligible for MLS free agency, Feilhaber will be eligible for MLS free agency unless LAFC offer him a contract over the maximum salary budget charge and Silva is under contract for several more years with Internacional.

“Heading into the offseason, we are really pleased with the core group of players that we have,” Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I don’t see a lot of turnover. I think there will be more continuity than is normal in MLS, but that said, we have identified areas where we feel we can strengthen.”

Perhaps the most glaring area LAFC could improve is their defense. For as dynamic as they were in the attack, LAFC struggled a bit in the back in 2018, conceding 52 goals, second-most of any playoff team.

Center back and captain Laurent Ciman leaving in August to join French Ligue 1 club Dijon complicated things in the back, but it didn’t coincide with an uptick in goals allowed. LAFC conceded 13 times in nine games after Ciman made his final appearance for the club, which was actually a slight improvement on their goals-against average from their 25 matches prior to Ciman’s departure.

Laurent Ciman's departure forced LAFC to adjust their defense midseason. | USA Today Images

Thorrington indicated he doesn’t have any second thoughts about moving Ciman, whose LAFC contract was set to expire this offseason, but he did say the team will look to shore things up in front of goal before the start of the 2019 season.

“At the outset, when we said what type of team we want to be, exciting and dynamic and creative, I think we saw all the results of that, but looking ahead to next year we don’t want that to be at the expense of conceding a lot of goals,” he said. “I think part of that is the work with the group that we currently have and improving upon how we defend and see out games and control games… and then certainly we will look to add personnel, if necessary, to achieve those goals.”

The status of Zimmerman, Silva and Harvey could add some urgency to any potential searches. A source told MLSsoccer.com in September that Zimmerman, who, according to the MLS Players Association, was guaranteed $235,000 in 2018, turned down a contract offer from LAFC. Thorrington said the club has been in regular contact with him about a new deal since, and he made it abundantly clear that he wants to re-sign the 25-year-old this winter. He also said that the club will hold discussions with Danilo and Internacional about potentially bringing the veteran back in 2019.

“We’ve been clear, and I’ll continue to be clear that we hope we can find an agreement that makes sense for Walker and for LAFC,” he said. “We haven’t been shy in expressing that directly to him and his representative, but again there are two sides to the conversation and we hope they can align.”

LAFC GM and EVP of soccer operations John Thorrington | Courtesy of LAFC

Though he thinks the overall team defense could improve, Thorrington wasn’t concerned by the solidity of LAFC’s central midfield trio. Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen and Eduard Atuesta were the primary starters after Mark Anthony-Kaye went down with a season-ending injury in July. Though often wildly effective on the ball, they at times drew criticism for a perceived weakness in defense. Thorrington and LAFC seem comfortable with the setup, however. They remain confident in the ability of Atuesta and Kaye, who has resumed on-field training and is expected to be 100 percent by the start of preseason, to hold firm behind the more attack-minded Nguyen and Feilhaber, who Thorrington said LAFC would work to bring back.

“Certainly, externally there is,” Thorrington said when asked if he was concerned by the defensive ability of his central midfielders. “As I’ve said, we look at the picture holistically in terms of how we want to play. I think Eduard Atuesta has every possibility of being a very, very good player in that position for years to come. We have very specific profiles of how we want to play, and that’s a very important position. We think he has room to improve, but certainly he has a lot of the qualities and starting points that we’re very hopeful that he’ll become a top player.”

Of course, any discussion of LAFC’s central midfield must include Designated Player Andre Horta. LAFC bought the 22-year-old from Portuguese club Benfica for a reported transfer fee of $7 million in the summer. He didn’t come close to reaching expectations in 2018, starting just three matches and making only 10 appearances after an inauspicious debut against the LA Galaxy – his rash backpass led to a late equalizer – on July 26.

Thorrington rightfully pointed out that Horta walked into a difficult situation to break into when he arrived in Southern California. LAFC were playing well and didn’t have the luxury of being able to slowly integrate players into the XI while fighting for playoff seeding. He was working in a new, demanding system. He was living outside of Portugal for the first time in his life, going through all the off-field adjustments that come with a cross-continental move. And he certainly wasn’t the first DP to sign an MLS deal in the summer and struggle to make an impact in the final few months of the season.

Andre Horta, LAFC's multi-million dollar man faced a tough first season in MLS. | USA Today Images

Horta’s got plenty of talent, and Thorrington said that LAFC haven’t changed “their high hopes and expectations” for him. He’ll have some valuable time off this winter, and a full preseason with the team should help him get a better handle on Bradley’s system.

“I think his position, it is a fairly demanding position, and we saw that onboarding process with Atuesta, we saw it with Benny, with Lee,” said Thorrington. “It’s difficult, but those who are willing to learn and are coachable and adapt, he’s got all the talent in the world to be a very effective player for us.”

Is Horta willing to learn, be coachable and adapt?

“Yeah. I think it’s a process with all of these players, and I think that question gets answered in time,” said Thorrington.

For now, however, Horta’s initial struggles are a bit of a high-class problem. LAFC proved this season that they’re more than capable of succeeding without getting much out of him. If he can take a step forward, if the rest of the roster can continue to grow in Bradley’s system and if Thorrington can use the club’s “healthy amount” of budget space to re-sign key pieces and make impactful additions, LAFC feel like they should only be better in year two.

“The overall trajectory of the club is what we’re looking to build upon,” said Thorrington. “We’ve laid this foundation and I’d like to see that progress with more points in the regular season and then hopefully a trophy. We’ve said from the get-go, there’s no lack of ambition or vision with this club, and that starts with our owners. The goal is not to make up the numbers in MLS and be another team. We really want to be a winner, we really want to be a global brand.”