With the 2023 preseason underway, LAFC Co-President/General Manager John Thorrington spoke recently with Jason Davis on Sirius XM’s UNITED STATES OF SOCCER.
On the heels of winning the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in 2022, Thorrington touched on navigating the challenges that inherently follow a Cup-winning roster, the impact of Head Coach Steve Cherundolo and his empathy surrounding Gareth Bale’s retirement.
Navigating the demands of heavy schedules, evolving league expectations and the national pull is often a balancing act when elevating Club success. Though he considers it all a welcome challenge, Thorrington isn’t shy to steer away from load management in 2023 and lean into the dynamics to leverage every opportunity through new strategic signings and international platforms.
“I would say our strategy going into this is mapping out all of the competitions. We rightly or wrongly, try to win everything. For us, creating a robust roster is our priority given the number of games we might play - up to 60 games this season,’ said Thorrington.
“I think your goals you have as a Club stay consistent. Which is - we want to give ourselves the best chance in every competition…there are dynamic things that take place that can change and perhaps shift priorities slightly. What I would say though, is that this club is one that is built to win.”
Another dynamic surrounds players on international duty, where 2022 found LAFC atop the list of total MLS players representing their country in in the FIFA World Cup. In the current international window, LAFC is without three players as Kellyn Acosta and Aaron Long are in camp with the U.S. National Team and Cristian Arango is with Colombia. When asked about the USMNT camps overlapping with MLS preseason in late January, Thorrington pointed to the culture of consistently supporting the players and federations to ensure players the opportunity to represent their country.
Both LAFC and USMNT January Camp Coach Anthony Hudson spoke about player involvement, and both sides felt comfortable it was the right thing to have Acosta and Long involved with the national team.
Thorrington also touched on the hiring of LAFC Head Coach Steve Cherundolo, and the early skepticism of his hiring before he helped put together what amounted to be a historic MLS season.
“What is interesting as we made the (hiring) decision - what was very clear is - nobody that knew Steve questioned the decision. I think what that speaks to, is people who have come across Steve, understand that he always had this potential. What the players felt, when they played for Steve. Then obviously by being in the building and a part of our technical staff, he knows LAFC. Which is what brought him here in the first place, that he was a good fit in terms of his philosophy and way of seeing things and relating to players,’ said Thorrington.
“For all of those reasons, it set things up for success.”
Despite the historical season in MLS, 2022 also dealt with another interesting narrative surrounding the usage of Gareth Bale throughout the MLS Cup Playoffs. During the interview, Davis admitted that the media perhaps ‘made a lot, about how little Bale impacted the team in the regular season,’ Thorrington revealed a bit more about Bale’s importance to the Club.
“What I don't think people understand though, is the level of professionalism and commitment and (his approach) every day in the building, regardless of whether he played on the Saturday and scored the goals that we were all thinking he would. Which he did at times. I still think that had a really positive impact on the group. Then as the stars aligned on November 5, there is no other player in Major League Soccer that could score that goal for LAFC. That went a long way to us winning that title. I think what we saw, when I say we went in eyes wide open - I think we saw with Gareth, literally, the variance of what was possible.”
LAFC will open the 2023 season against the LA Galaxy on Sat. Feb. 25 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Full transcript of the conversation is available below:
LAFC CO-PRESIDENT & GENERAL MANAGER JOHN THORRINGTON
Wednesday, January 18, 2023 | SIRIUS XM (United States of Soccer) | Transcript
Jason Davis: “We just got the U.S. Men's National Team Roster for the January camp...a couple of players from LAFC (Los Angeles Football Club) on that list and we're talking now to the general manager, the guy in charge of LAFC and that roster and putting together a championship program. He did a good job of it last year, obviously - John Thorrington on this show. John, how are you?”
John Thorrington: “Very well, Jason. How are you?”
Davis: I'm doing well. First of all, congratulations on the success. Congratulations on the new contract. I'm sure that you have raised the bar enough that now you have to figure out how to clear it again. Right?”
Thorrington: “Something like that. Yeah, I think we obviously were very proud of what the group achieved last year. But as is life in any sport, you now focus on what you can do this year and hopefully take the Club to even greater heights.”
Davis: “Let me ask you about the names on the U.S. Men's National Team roster - (LAFC midfielder) Kellyn Acosta on there. (LAFC defender) Aaron Long, who you just signed to a free agent deal - on there. And there was a little bit of discussion going into this camp as to whether MLS Clubs would be happy to release their players. You've got a lot of games coming up. You got a Champions League campaign to get into. The league season starts pretty early. What was the thinking on whether or not to let these guys go play in a January U.S. Men's National Team camp?”
Thorrington: “Well, first of all, I think we've always been consistent in our support of the U.S. National Team and our players pursuit of playing internationally for the various countries represented in our roster. And (LAFC Head Coach) Steve (Cherundolo) had an open conversation with (U.S. National Team January Camp Head Coach) Anthony Hudson about our players' involvement. I think both sides felt comfortable that it was the right thing for them to do. We do obviously have the benefit that it's going to be here in L.A. and they'll actually, ironically, be playing at our stadium next Wednesday and the players were excited to join. And as I say, we've been consistent in our support of working with players and federations to ensure that our players get the right opportunity to represent their country.”
Davis: “All right. So with that sort of business out of the way here, you are preparing for a busy season. You're trying to repeat as MLS Cup Champions and Supporters' Shield winners. I've talked to championship winning [general managers] in the past and what happens is - everybody wants more money. Everybody is now in a more advantageous position in terms of the leverage on their contract. You've got a couple guys that have been rumored for moves. You've brought in Aaron Long. How difficult is it, in this league in particular, to keep together or build on a team that just won a title?”
Thorrington: “Well, I'm grateful to be in a position to answer that question. So, I'd say it is a challenge, but it's a welcomed one. I think what we have seen, which we knew, is with team success, obviously the individuals that play a part in that, you have different conversations with players depending on where they're at with their contract. We had players that we would've loved to have kept. But, as they finished their contract, their value was very high because of what they had achieved here and we obviously wish them nothing but the best. And they helped us. But that is the challenge within our league, is that we don't get additional resources to then enable us to keep the players - particularly those that are out of contract. And so that is the constant evolution of teams that we have to confront as MLS general managers. What I would say though, is while it is a challenge, I have great faith in our scouting department, our recruiting staff, our data analysts and the way we work as we have to say the bittersweet goodbyes to certain players and make some changes in order to improve the team - that we will be able to do so because of the great work that the staff puts in. We still have some work to do on that end.”
Davis: “John, are you comfortable giving us some thoughts into how the league operates on this front? And the ability not just keep a team together to try to win a championship again or operate within the league. But, now MLS is very focused on Leagues Cup, which is coming. I mentioned the Champions League - always pressured to win that. With Seattle (Sounders) now as (CONCACAF Champions League) champions, there's going to be even more expectation for MLS to compete at a high level in that competition. Does the league give you enough tools to do all of that?”
Thorrington: “Yeah, I think what I am comfortable saying, is that I think we have priorities as a league and as a competition that have informed we are faced with. I think one of them obviously is parity. I think that is just a function of one of the priorities that owners have at the league level. These rules, regulations and maybe something that's less than ideal for a team like ours, that wants more resources to be able to keep our team together - the limitations will never be seen as an excuse at our club or used as an excuse. I think we understand the rules. We work within them and we then have to prepare as best we can to put a competitive team on the field come game one against the (LA) Galaxy and then very quickly going down to Costa Rica soon thereafter for our Champions League game. So it is the reality of our system. It'll never be used as an excuse. Part of me actually likes the challenge of trying to be as possible within these rules to ensure that we are competing year in, year out.”
Davis: “That sounds like a healthy approach to this. I mean, that doesn't necessarily preclude the club from working behind the scenes, maybe with other clubs, other owners, other chief soccer officers to push the league forward, right John?”
Thorrington: “For sure. And those conversations are always going on at board level, at CSO (Chief Soccer Officer) level, as to ideas and ways in which we can continue to move the league forward and achieve the goals and objectives we all have to grow the game here and compete at international level and raise the quality on the field. So, those conversations are ongoing and are dynamic and constant. There are some bright people at those levels informing the rules and decisions based on the feedback they get from us and from owners.”
Davis: “All right. So, you win a title. You expect to win a Supporters' Shield. You expect to be in the Champions League next year - you can start thinking about the second that one of those trophies is acquired. The league has also been moving to the Leagues Cup - that's a new thing for everybody. How does the Leagues Cup impact what you've done in this off-season?”
Thorrington: “It's not just specifically the Leagues Cup. I would say our strategy going into this is mapping out all of the competitions. We rightly or wrongly, try to win everything. For us, creating a robust roster is our priority given the number of games we might play, up to 60 games this season. And add in travel and international fixtures, all the rest of it, it is going to be a challenge. So in order to prepare for that challenge, we have definitely had a targeted approach as to the types of players who we think can be relied upon to play multiple games in some weeks and do so at a consistently high level. So I'd say not just the Leagues Cup, but the Leagues Cup combined with Campeones Cup. We have Champions League. We will try to make a good run at (U.S.) Open Cup, at Supporters' Shield, at playoffs, all the rest of it. I think with that number of games, our intent is to build a roster that we think can give us the best chance in all competitions.”
Davis: “Of course you're going to say, 'We want to win all the Cups. We want the trophies. We want to win everything.' But there will be realities throughout the year, right? There will be a question of 'Ok, how much do we prioritize the Open Cup if that's, if league form is not very good?' I'm not sure where in the schedule all this falls, but maybe Leagues Cup goes really well for you, but that adds games to the tally for these players. You can't prioritize everything at the same level, right John?”
Thorrington: “I would say that's true. Jason, I think what I would say is, and you mentioned some of them - right now when we're looking at this season, undefeated, but not having won a game either, I think your goals you have as a club stay consistent. Which is we want to give ourselves the best chance in every competition. But what you highlighted is certain variables can change prior to that competition. Whether that's your league form, whether that is Open Cup. So, you have to take everything into account. We would be foolish to set the goals right now and put them in stone. There are dynamic things that take place that can change and perhaps shift priorities slightly. What I would say though, is that this club is one that is built to win. Those are the expectations of every staff member, every player, and the supporters that we have. But as you say, as the season develops, there might be competitions and games and things that may take greater or lesser priority.”
Davis: “I want to talk about Steve Cherundolo for a second. I have this vague recollection that I may have questioned Steve Cherundolo taking this job, getting this job. That you brought him in...”
Thorrington: (laughs) “All of you guys have vague recollections if you're proven wrong.”
Davis: “No, I think I will own up to this John, that I at least questioned the idea that a guy with that limited experience would be able to lead a club with the ambitions that LAFC has. Obviously, I was wrong. Obviously, he was the right guy for the job. What allowed for Steve to be that successful in his first year at this level?”
Thorrington: “I appreciate you taking accountability, Jason. That's a rare quality in your world (laughs). No, I think for me, I actually totally understand why somebody may have questioned it. What is interesting as we made the decision - what was very clear is - nobody that knew Steve questioned the decision. I think what that speaks to, is people who have come across Steve, understand that he always had this potential. Myself included. I do not think Steve got the right level of credit for what he did last year. He achieved things that no other coach in MLS has ever done before. And I don't really think he got, and I don't think he needs it, but I don't think he got full credit for what he did. There are a number of great coaches in our league. But, I think what Steve did was literally historic. He won more games as a first-year coach than anybody has ever done.
“And I think your question as to why I believe that was the case? I think one of the key things is that Steve was here the year before. And oddly when we hired him, people looked at that as his record at Las Vegas and almost as a negative. Whereas, we saw it as a positive because it gave us a chance to see how he dealt with the challenges that were presented to him as the coach of the Lights - where you're training here, you're on a bus to Vegas. How he managed the group. What the players felt, when they played for Steve. Then obviously by being in the building and a part of our technical staff, he knows LAFC. Which is what brought him here in the first place, that he was a good fit in terms of his philosophy and way of seeing things and relating to players.
“For all of those reasons, it set things up for success. I will say I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it was evident, even in preseason, about the guys grasping his message and really coming together. What I said at the (introductory) press conference, which I would say maybe even more so, is I know that Steve is a coach the players love playing for. When you are pushing as hard as you can in multiple competitions, I think that's a key ingredient for players to be motivated by. A real desire to play for and enjoy playing for a coach.”
Davis: “I know you prefer to look forward, rather than look back. But, I do want to hear your thoughts as to the Gareth Bale experience. We in the media made a lot, about how little he impacted the team during the regular season. He obviously had a huge impact in the MLS Cup Final and ultimately he ends his career as an LAFC player after that short stint. Despite at the beginning saying, 'I'm here for the long haul.' Can you contextualize all that for us? I don't begrudge the guy the right to change his mind, I will say that.”
Thorrington: “I think it's a totally fair question, given what people may know on the outside. I think for me, I have no problem looking back. I think without looking back, we're not as well informed as to what we need to do moving forward. But, I think we went into the Gareth signing (with) eyes wide open as to the possibilities as to what we may see. I think when you look at things and you say, 'if history is the best predictor of what's going to happen in the future' - it was much of the same, I think to everybody's frustration. But more, Gareth than anybody, we never really got him over the hump in terms of a really consistent training-load into where he could impact games at the level that we know he is capable.
Sure, we saw flashes of that at certain moments. What I don't think people understand though, is the level of professionalism and commitment and (his approach) every day in the building, regardless of whether he played on the Saturday and scored the goals that we were all thinking he would. Which he did at times. I still think that had a really positive impact on the group. Then as the stars aligned on November 5, there is no other player in Major League Soccer that could score that goal for LAFC. That went a long way to us winning that title. I think what we saw, when I say we went in eyes wide open, I think we saw with Gareth, literally the variance of what was possible. One extreme was him scoring a goal and yet another Final and winning yet another Trophy.
Then the other was the reality of his condition when he came here and his frustration not playing in a lot of football in the months leading up (to joining LAFC). We unfortunately couldn't get him quite over that hump. So, I think we saw everything that we expected and thankfully we ended (the season) on that high note. I think we're really grateful for the commitment Gareth showed and he is now forever a hero in LAFC's history. I think when it came time to make his decision, which he made recently, I think his words every step of the way were absolutely genuine. I think at the time he made the decision to come here, it was, 'Let's go there. We're going to sign this deal. I'm committed.' I know Gareth and every word he said was genuine.
But I do think, as I mentioned with our priorities and goals throughout a season, things can change. I think Gareth, in my talk with him which was very open and sincere the day before he announced it - I totally understood. Look, I myself not having the career he had, I had this issue at the end of my career, actually throughout my whole career. Where when you feel like you're fighting against your own body and it just comes a time where you just say, 'Look, I'm not going to try to climb the mountain again'. And if you take not my career, but his, and you think 'What more is there left to achieve to go through this grind to get myself back up? I've just won another title at LAFC. I've just captained my country to its first World Cup in however many years? I've scored a goal at the World Cup.' While we were planning to have Gareth here, I could totally understand his reasoning and rationale for the decision he made.”
Davis: “I want to look forward now with what's coming in 2023. Aaron Long is now signed. You made a couple of other acquisitions. What business is left for you at this point? How much different will the team look when you guys kick off?”
Thorrington: “We do still have some needs. We're looking, particularly, to add in midfield and then at outside back. We do feel great about the group here. They've come in, they've been very energetic. Our homegrown players have shown up and ready to push, hopefully for more minutes this year. We feel really good about the group we have. But, there will be some additions that we need to make. Particularly in midfield and to add depth to (Defender) Ryan (Hollingshead) and (Defender Diego) Palacios. And all the while, which makes our job fun slash challenging, is we have to have contingency plans in place for all of the ongoing conversations of interest in our players. Both within the league and externally, having those contingency plans in place. But as I said at the outset of our conversation here this morning, I could not be. in a better place with our scouting and recruitment team and in position to make sure that when we do have to make these changes, that were in position with contingency plans that continue to take the club forward.”
Davis: “John Thorrington, co-president/general manager of LAFC. Two trophies in 2022, and (perhaps) all the trophies in 2023. John, thank you very much for your time.”
Thorrington: “Always good talking to you.”