LAFC Co-President & General Manager John Thorrington sat down with LAFC broadcaster Max Bretos in to discuss the Club’s busy off-season, upcoming player transactions and the coaching search in the days leading up to the opening of the MLS transaction window. Below is the entire conversation:
MAX BRETOS: As you take a look back at a difficult 2021 season, what are some things that you are proud of – some positives that you can take away from as the Club has grown in what was a trying season on the field.
JOHN THORRINGTON: I’ll start with how you finished – it was a trying season on the field. I don’t think it went as anybody expected, nor did it finish the way we wanted. So we are now in the position of having to watch the MLS Cup, a game that we wanted to be participating in. It is tough. It is a bitter pill to swallow. I will say with that – the disappointment will fuel what we are doing now and the moves we make moving forward.
Even though it wasn’t the season we wanted, and it wasn’t the finish we wanted, there is a lot here. There is a really strong foundation here. There were moments and performances this year certainly that we can be proud of as an organization, and those will be the building blocks that we will use.
Overall, it was an odd year. There were some periods of the season where we faced the challenge of maybe our results not matching our performance and not getting the results we necessarily felt we deserved through the performance. But that is a part of football and that is frustrating. We had to work our way through that. Then you pile injuries on top of that and it was just a bit too much for us in the end. We were competing until the last kick of the last game – and unfortunately it didn’t go our way. Like I said, that leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouth that will fuel us.
MB: As the offseason is here, there is a lot is on your plate – the new season starts Feb. 28 so it is going to be a real sprint to get there. A coaching change is obviously on the top of that to-do list, but let’s first talk about the LAFC foundation and talk about Bob [Bradley]. He was able to help build that. You have had a relationship with Bob since well before LAFC. Can you talk a little about what he was able to do to help set that foundation for the Club?
JT: I think that as you mentioned, we set out five-to-six years ago with a vision of what we wanted to build here and that was a fairly clear vision. It started with ownership and then was built throughout the rest of the organization, and Bob was a critical component of that. We felt that he was the guy to help execute upon that vision and he did. We are looking back now at the last four years, and I think the goals that we had four years ago before starting the 2018 season, we did achieve many of those. Did we achieve everything? No. But the overarching goal of this club: to establish who we are, how we play, and accomplish our goal of connecting with the city and setting the club on a path of upward trajectory in a sustainable way – we have achieved that. For that reason, and in large part thanks to what Bob helped build here – we are now standing upon a very strong foundation and very excited about the next phase of LAFC.
MB: You mentioned the vision of the Club -- what are some of the traits you will be looking for from a new head coach as you continue the process?
JT: Honestly many of the same traits that we looked at when we hired Bob. I think one thing that is key in terms of our search – a key criteria is we are not going to change how we play. That is how LAFC plays and that will remain consistent. The characteristics we are looking for starts with what is the coach’s style of play and does it align with what LAFC does? We do not have the luxury, nor do we want to overhaul the whole roster. These players were brought here to play a certain way, we play a way that our fans have come to love, and it is entertaining. It is everything we set out to do and that will continue. Of course, every coach is slightly different and they might have a few tweaks within those guard rails, but by and large that philosophy will remain throughout. That is a key part of LAFC and that will continue.
I think as you look at other characteristics, we would want a coach who has shown a track record of developing talent. For us that is key for developing success on the field and our financial model, as we invest in young players, our academy and international players and then bring them here for success and hope they move on. We want a person who represents the club well - that is key. A person who is a proven winner. All these characteristics are very similar to what we wanted when we landed on Bob, which was the right decision then. I can say the interest in this job is incredible – some of the names and people that are interested,– it still surprises me. Maybe it shouldn’t anymore.
MB: It shouldn’t!
JT: But we have a great list of candidates that we are working through and we are really excited to get that squared away.
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MB: You have picked up the option on Carlos Vela for 2022 – how do you see that leading to where Carlos is for the next few months and into next season?
JT: We have seen in four years, in my opinion, and I would happily debate this – we have seen the best player have the best season in our league [in 2019]. We have seen those highs with Carlos, we have seen them as recently as less than a year ago in Champions League. So, we know the heights that Carlos can get to and take this team too. We would love to see more and more of that. We know the reality of injuries and various things that have put obstacles in the way for Carlos, so that he hasn’t reached the heights that he did in years one and two and in Champions League. But we are in discussions with Carlos right now – it is a two-way conversation with LAFC and Carlos to see what makes sense for both moving forward.
MB: Diego Rossi moved to Fenerbahce and is doing wonderfully and has been playing well in Europe. How much do you follow him, and how are you looking to pursue another Designated Player who could replace him or have similar qualities?
JT: It brings us great pleasure to see a player like Diego doing well at a high level in Europe. That was always the plan and that was both his ambition and our ambition for him, so that is gratifying to see. We hope that he is just the first of many LAFC players in that situation, so that does give us great pleasure and satisfaction in seeing that.
I think what you touched on is really exciting for our group right now. We are now completely focused on what the future is as we enter 2022 with a lot of flexibility in how we build this roster. That is to say -- to build on the roster we have. We have some really, really good players here that will remain the core in 2022 and moving forward, but we do know for the first time in a long time, we can add further to this talented group at the DP level and all the way down the roster.
MB: Let’s talk about some of those players – Chicho Arango was the MLS Newcomer of the Year, Mamadou Fall was an exciting 18-year-old defender, and then you have Eddie Segura coming back from an injury – there is nice foundation. How do you approach this off-season knowing you already have certain pieces in place?
JT: I think the foundation is largely here, how you tweak that and whether there are additional player moves in and out - that is all about the balance of our roster. I think we have some key pieces, and you mentioned a few of them. We have some young talent- a guy like [Jose] Cifuentes really came into his own last year and we still think there is more to come from him. You mentioned Fall and Arango, I think Brian [Rodriguez] had a strong finish to the season that we would like to see continue.
When you look back at 2021, at the beginning of the season – we didn’t have Brian. For most of the season we didn’t have Carlos and at the end of the season we didn’t have Diego [Rossi]. We were effectively without our horsepower in our Designated Players – so that is certainly something that we will add to, with great effect moving forward. Add to that the younger players, like Cifu, [Francisco] Ginella, who had an unfortunate injury. Eddie [Segura] had an injury, and he is such a big part of how we defend and how we play. I think welcoming those guys back from injury and then adding some fresh blood – it is not an overhaul. It is a tweak and really addressing the balance of the make-up of our group.
MB: The LAFC Academy has had tremendous success already with Tony Leone and Christian Torres playing internationally for Mexico. Overall, how do you see the LAFC Academy and the relationship with the Las Vegas Lights continuing to evolve?
JT: I think we are excited about what has happened but even more excited about what is to come. I spent a recent weekend out at the MLS Next events with teams across the league in Southern California and it is really exciting to see what our academy staff has been able to do. I think COVID affected the kids in Southern California more so than other parts of the country with stricter protocols, they are all still kind of shedding that skin- but we are really exited about the talent that is coming through at the 15’s, 17’s, and the 19 year age level. We have some good players, and now that we are continuing our relationship with Vegas in 2022, you will see that grow even further. There will be more opportunities in Vegas. I think we learned a lot about our first year in Vegas about balancing the first team, the Vegas group and then how our academy will interact with them all. I think we will certainly bolster that group to good effect and that will help the academy kids grow appropriately and set them up for success in Vegas and help them moving forward.
To have our academy players interacting with their national teams has been fantastic. To have two players from LAFC [Christian Torres and Tony Leone] that are starting for Mexico’s U-20 team is a great testament to the players of course, and the work of the academy. There are more in our pipeline at the younger ages for the U.S., Mexico and El Salvador.
MB: To follow up with what you said earlier – this is your “on-season” – how much work goes into this time of year to find a new coach and new players?
JT: I say that because the conversations and work right now are more urgent – if you are negotiating with a player or staff – it has to get done right now. That is a different feeling than managing the in-season training and various things that come up during the season. This is the first time we are heading into a coaching search. If you add to that, I think there will be more player additions this off-season than have been typical for us. But it is not just me working hard – we have our whole staff here working hard – and together and we have such a great collaborative environment that has led us to have success with our players, coaches and staff, and I am sure that will continue.
MB: Heading into Year 5 – that is an important benchmark for a Club. From starting this team from nothing to building a Club, a stadium and a culture – what are some of your best memories over the last five years and what does that milestone mean to you?
JT: I would start by saying that just being from L.A. – I think this Club is a different animal for fans of sports in Los Angeles. I think to be prideful of my L.A. roots, we have offered something very different. We have satisfied this appetite that was there for what we offer, and that is just particularly gratifying as a human being and that part of it is awesome as well. That to me is a satisfying part of the work – connecting to the city and doing things that no other sports team does.
The specific memories, it is hard to look past the Leon game at home. [LAFC defeated Leon in the first round of the 2020 Concacaf Champions League in February, 2020] That game was just an explosion of everything that was good about LAFC – whether it was on the field or off the field, being the underdog, the dramatic goal -- everything was just fantastic. Taking that further into Champions League and doing what no MLS club had done before was great. I remember getting calls from supporters in tears when we beat [Club] America, literally crying that we just did it. Unfortunately, we didn’t finish it. That is a big, big goal of ours to get back into Champions League and set the record straight and try to erase those last 20 minutes against Tigres.
But I think for us – most people deal in five-year plans, but so far, this four-year plan was about laying a foundation and setting a trajectory, and I think those moments are what this Club can be and I think this last year while it was not everything that we wanted it to be, there are lessons we learned that we will be able to implement moving forward that will make us better.