Walking into Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations half a decade ago in his new gig with Major League Soccer, current LAFC assistant general manager Will Kuntz was feeling pretty good about himself.
And why wouldn't he? The former "whiz-kid scout" for the New York Yankees ascended to prominence in the front office after starting as an intern at baseball's most successful franchise, having won the World Series in 2009, before joining MLS in 2014. All of this came prior to his 30th birthday. He had plenty to be confident about.
But across the room at those CBA negotiations, he met his match.
"On the other side of the table there’s also a young guy, not a hair out of place, incredibly handsome and charming, plus has an answer for everything I said," Kuntz told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month. "This guy is just a pain to deal with. That was my introduction to John Thorrington.”
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Those first interactions would spark a mutual admiration between Thorrington and Kuntz. "Two parts cordial, four parts adversarial" is how Kuntz would describe their professional relationship at the time, working opposite sides of CBA negotiations.
When Thorrington was appointed executive vice president of soccer operations for then-expansion side LAFC at the end of 2015, the groundwork was laid for Kuntz to eventually join the adversary he once found so infuriating. They kept in contact as Kuntz continued working in the league office, and then Thorrington came to New York City for several days of meetings at the MLS offices. Kuntz and Thorrington got to talking one day, as Kuntz shared his ideas on how he would build out a salary budget and scouting department, colored with his experiences from the Yankees and in the league office.
"You know what? This guy doesn’t hate me as much as I thought he should," Kuntz chuckled. Six months later, in January of 2017, Kuntz was introduced as Thorrington's assistant GM.
Now less than three years down the line, in just LAFC's second season, the pair have led their club to a Supporters' Shield and a new single-season league record for points (73). They, of course, hope 2019 brings about one more trophy.
“It’s not hyperbole to say it’s been an incredible season," Kuntz said without hesitation. "We thought about what we could possibly hope for in a second season; you’d be hard-pressed to think of anything better up to now. We still have three big games ahead of us that are also going to define our season."
LAFC hope they have three more games left, as Kuntz forecasts, or better yet, three more wins. That third win would culminate with Carlos Vela hoisting MLS Cup at Banc of California Stadium, a trophy that would fit well in their case next to the Supporters' Shield and solidify their claim as one of the league's best-ever teams. But they're only guaranteed one more, and that comes against a team they've famously yet to beat: the LA Galaxy. El Trafico round six kicks off on Thursday night (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TVAS, TSN in Canada) in the Western Conference Semifinals as part of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
While the club won't be content with just the Supporters' Shield and 2020 Concacaf Champions League spot, LAFC are proud of what they've accomplished so far.
“It’s our first piece of hardware as a club, it’s important," Kuntz said, adding that 2019 was in the 99th percentile of their expectations. "It’s something to build around. With that said, we have more to accomplish this year. Staying there is harder than getting there. The success we’ve had already is going to raise the competition and raise the expectations. We don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back.”
The club's desire to continue building is familiar to Kuntz, who knows a thing or two about the championship-or-bust ethos from his Yankees' tenure. He sees similarities between his former and current employers.
“What jumps to mind is the standard that we set," Kuntz said. "We’re always looking to improve, we’d never sit back and say, ‘Oh we have it all figured out.’ That’s reminiscent of what we had in our best years at the Yankees. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the season we have, but we still have more work to do. The regular season is great, but that’s now in the rearview mirror and we’re looking to the next three games. We want to show the world who we are through our football.”
In Thorrington, LAFC have their own Brian Cashman, the longtime and well respected Yankees GM who has won five World Series.
“John has been the one constant throughout," Kuntz said. "He may not want me to say it, but it’s pretty evident the impact he’s had. The people around the club feel supported and that extends well beyond what we have on the field. The most incredible part is, he’s doing all this for the first time. We all feed off him, follow his lead.
"I can definitely say – it’s early – but my instincts on John were bang on," Kuntz added. "He’s been incredible to work with.”