The Black & Gold recently announced the establishment of a USL affiliate partnership with the Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL Championship, beginning with the start of the upcoming 2021 season.
The Lights, called the “Most Interesting team in the world,” by Sports Illustrated, are entering their fourth season in the USL Championship. The team was formally announced as a USL expansion franchise on Aug. 11, 2017 and made its professional debut on March 17, 2018.
To add a little more insight into the decision to align with the Vegas side, we recently spoke to LAFC Co-President and GM, John Thorrington, on everything from how the partnership came to be and what makes him excited moving forward.
To begin, can you give us a little insight into how this partnership came to be?
Going back to even before we had a product on the field, we recognized the need to bridge this gap between our Academy and First Team. Over the years, MLS teams have approached that in different ways. It started way back when I was playing, there was a reserves league that did not last long - and for good reason. Then you started to see this model where teams had partnerships in USL, then certain clubs decided to operate their own USL team, and then you saw this hybrid model come up in certain cases more recently. For us, as we were evaluating what to do in this space for next year with all the uncertainty in 2021 and looking ahead, we were evaluating these opportunities as to whether to do our own thing, to do nothing, or to do a hybrid.
This opportunity presented itself in conversations with Vegas as of a few months ago, and it was appealing right from the outset because it gave both clubs an ability to focus on our respective interests. Las Vegas is running a really good business in the USL, and when we started talking, we thought that we could help them with their on-field product. As the various conversations and iterations as to what this may look like came to fruition, we think we've settled on a really appealing model for both sides. It will provide a platform for our players as well as allow us the ability to place other prospects and veterans that we think would serve us well in in the USL. All the while, we will be putting an on-field product out there that we think Vegas and its fans will really be proud of and like to come out and support.
What do you think is special about this partnership?
It's not altogether different in concept from some of the hybrid models we've seen with other MLS teams. This arrangement will provide great technical benefits as we can more easily align top to bottom. This enables much more flexibility to move players from squad to squad. We are very specific in how we play and, in our expectations, and therefore to do it all with the coaches rubbing shoulders at each level - we find that to be a great benefit.
This is not the first time LAFC has had a USL partner. Can you talk about past experiences, such as Tristan Blackmon spending time with USL’s Phoenix Rising, that have been beneficial to LAFC’s players?.
For us, what is great about this partnership is it will enable more situations like that one. Now we have a few more roster spots to utilize for players that we think have the potential to be MLS players - whether that is because they're already on our MLS roster or they are players we've identified that we think eventually will merit a place in MLS.
What we've done in the past, is on a case-by-case basis with some of our First Team players when they weren't getting the minutes that we felt they needed for their development, we would send them to a place like Phoenix. Phoenix has been a great partner in that regard, and Tristan in this case helped them get to the finals which was great for Tristan and great for Phoenix.
What this new partnership now enables is it is all in-house and allows more opportunities for guys within our specific game model and how we play rather than just saying, ‘You’ve ticked a box this week and got some more minutes.’
Now it will be, you've got more minutes that are preparing you for exactly how LAFC plays , which has been the goal from our 12-year-olds all the way up now through the First Team.
What are you most excited about with this partnership?
I’m really excited because this is the last piece that was missing in terms of how we can bridge this gap between our Academy and First Team. Some players have already started to show, especially our Academy Homegrowns like Christian Torres, Eric Dueñas and Tony Leone, that there is great benefit for them to be in our everyday training environment. All three of them have done a really great job to adapt and equip themselves well to the demands of senior-level football. Now this gives guys like that and the younger ones that are still to come a platform where they can transition into this professional game.
We also have players that are already in the First Team that, if for whatever reason, they are not playing that week in MLS, then they can go and get a game within our system coached by our coaches whenever needed. So for us, this is not just for our Academy players, and it is not just for our younger MLS guys. We see this for those players, but also this gives us the ability to identify more players like a Mahala Opoku, who we identified and probably when we signed him was not quite ready for MLS, but in training and throughout the year he got a foothold and got playing time. So, I just think it adds another piece and makes our whole operation more complete.