LAFC enjoyed the best regular season in MLS history in 2019.
They picked up more points and had a better goal differential than any team before them. Carlos Vela had the best individual season in league history, scoring more goals than anyone had before him as well as delivering more goals plus assists than anyone in league history.
Now, the next phase of the team's quest to become a global club kicks off in less than a month, as LAFC prepare for their first-ever Concacaf Champions League adventure.
“Step 1 was to get to MLS, Step 2 was to qualify for the Champions League and Step 3 is to have success and win it," LAFC general manager and EVP of soccer operations John Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com this week. "When we mapped out this organization’s goals and objective from day one — which was many years ago — the thought of really making an impact in the global football landscape was a lofty target of ours, [excelling in CCL] would go some way to achieving that."
The draw didn't do LAFC any favors.
It may be true that there aren't really any easy CCL games, but there are for sure some that are harder than others. And LAFC got stuck in the unenviable position as the lone MLS club to get drawn with a Liga MX side in the Round of 16. Not quite a friendly welcome to the competition, particularly given that not only will that be their first game following preseason, but that they have a number of key players still on international duty as the rest of the squad prepares.
If they can navigate around Club Leon, it doesn't get any easier. On their side of the bracket lies Cruz Azul, Club America and Atlanta United. Theoretically, their road to the final goes through Leon, Cruz Azul, America/Atlanta. It's quite the gauntlet.
“I’m really excited for the challenge," Thorrington said. "For us to be able to measure this group against the best our region has to offer in international games, traveling and hosting the games, we’re really excited.”
“We are always supportive of our players pursuing their international ambitions.”— LAFC (@LAFC) January 17, 2020
For Club & Country. Coach Bob Bradley and GM John Thorrington on what it means for #LAFC players to compete on the World's Stage. pic.twitter.com/U3e8FnUtas
To deal with the arduous task of competing in both the CCL and MLS to start the season, LAFC looked to keep continuity and add depth.
Eight of the club's starters in their final 2019 match remain with the team, and 10 of the club's likely strongest XI were with the team at least since last summer. Designated Players Vela and Diego Rossi have been with the club since day one, as has defensive anchor Walker Zimmerman.
Not only did the club get deeper, but they also got younger this offseason. Midfielders Jose Cifuentes and Francisco Ginella, who both starred at last year's U-20 World Cup, have arrived. Danny Musovski gives the club more depth up top. Kenneth Vermeer slots in at goalkeeper. They likely aren't done adding, either, with only 23 players under contract.
“I’d say for us, a lot of our work this offseason was to maintain continuity, increase depth and even challenge a few players who have been incumbent starters," Thorrington said. "I think we’ve done that successfully."
But a focus on the Champions League doesn't mean they aren't also eyeing a Supporters' Shield repeat.
While a CCL hangover has taken its toll on countless MLS sides in recent years, even leaving a few teams so banged up and queasy from their continental bender they missed the playoffs completely, like Toronto FC in 2018 and Sporting KC last year, LAFC are determined to go all in on trying to repeat as Supporters' Shield winners.
“We’re absolutely going to go 100% and try win it again," Thorrington said without hesitation. "For me, for us as an organization, I think the Supporters’ Shield is the best metric to measure the trajectory of a club. Consistent performance year over year is the hardest thing to achieve in our league of parity.”
They will be taking measures to mitigate the effects, of course. Thorrington points to a great sports science staff that works in collaboration with the coaching staff to obviate injuries and ensure every player finds the right workload to stay competitive on multiple fronts. That's the data-driven part of the equation. There's also a more simplistic answer: They have a young core.
Unlike the aforementioned 2018 TFC and 2019 SKC sides that leaned on a number of veterans, LAFC have one of the youngest squads in the league. Youthful exuberance, to the rescue.
"We have the youngest team in the league in terms of guys playing by quite a wide margin," Thorrington said while adding he thinks this is the deepest squad in the club's young history. "That will serve us well. Those young players will add another year of experience and their youthful energy will certainly serve us well as we tackle these three-game weeks at the start of the season then again in the summer.”