Only two months have passed since LAFC walked off the pitch at rainy Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio, after falling in the MLS Cup Final. International football provides little respite to its clubs, though, and no MLS team knows this better than LAFC, which played a league-record 53 games across all competitions in 2023.
For 2024, the objective remains the same: trophies.
“Our league is not designed to do what we've done these last two years,” LAFC co-president and GM John Thorrington said recently, referring to his club’s consecutive appearances in MLS’ version of the Super Bowl. “We don't take years off at LAFC. We go for it every single year.”
Those words are reason enough to feel inspired about LAFC taking the field again in 2024. Here are six other reasons.
THERE WILL BE WINNINGAs Thorrington suggested, the rules of roster-building and player compensation within Major League Soccer are unlike those of any other first-division league in the world. They are designed to create parity – to restrain the power of MLS’ strongest clubs and give the struggling ones hope. These rules, restrictive as they may be, have never affected LAFC’s ability to win.
Even in 2021, the “worst” of LAFC’s six seasons of play, the Black & Gold won 12 MLS matches and lost 13 (with nine draws). The 45 points the club earned that year weren’t enough for a playoff bid, but that same point total would have gotten LAFC into the postseason in 2023.
The Black & Gold finished first in MLS in expected goals (xG) in 2021, and were first in completed through balls, too. Point being: in its least successful season LAFC played the most entertaining soccer in the league.
The years before and after 2021 were filled with trophies and coveted appearances in various finals. LAFC ranks first or second in MLS in wins, points, and goals, since it entered the league in 2018.
LAFC’s achievements over its first six seasons of play are even more impressive considering the annual roster flux that MLS clubs endure each year. LAFC currently has just four players under contract who started the MLS Cup final in 2022: Dénis Bouanga, Ilie Sánchez, Jesús David Murillo, and Ryan Hollingshead. Yet LAFC is the odds-on favorite to win its third straight Western Conference title.
Add in the offseason news that head coach Steve Cherundolo’s contract has been extended, and what you have is plenty of gasoline in the Black & Gold engine – an engine that over the last two months has finally gotten some rest.
CATCHING THEIR BREATH
Of all the statistics to come out of LAFC’s record-setting 2023 run, this might be the most eye-opening:
Between LAFC’s 2023 regular-season opener (March 4) and finale (Oct. 21), the club played 48 games across all competitions. Two-thirds of those games (32) were played on two or three days’ rest. That’s unheard of in first-division football. Somehow LAFC produced a record of 12W-12L-8D in those games, then clean-sheeted three straight playoff opponents and advanced to the league final.
One wonders what that 2023 team might have accomplished if they’d been able to catch a nap now and then.
Rest does not figure to be an issue this year. Cherundolo’s recovered players will be playing their home matches inside a refurbished BMO Stadium, too.
Life is good.
Tottenham’s loss is LAFC’s gain. Last year when the storied English Premier League club granted Lloris, its longtime goalkeeper and captain, permission to weigh other offers, Lloris did not leap at the first opportunity. Or the second. He remained patient. Choosy. Finally, he chose LA.
The most-capped player in France’s history, Lloris, 37, played in a World Cup final just 14 months ago. He posted 128 clean sheets over his 11 years in the English Premier League— 12th all-time in EPL history. He has played in 361 Premier League matches and an eye-opening 70 UEFA Champions League matches. (Giorgio Chiellini, by comparison, played in 92.) There isn’t much Lloris hasn’t seen on a soccer pitch.
“Hugo— not much needs to be said about him and his career,” Cherundolo said during a break this week at the Coachella Invitational. “It’s been well-documented. He’s one of the most successful goalkeepers in the world … His presence and his leadership are going to help us out a lot.”
Adding a keeper of Lloris’ caliber and experience can only strengthen a side that became more defense-oriented during its march toward the 2023 MLS Cup. Only one goalkeeper in history has appeared 20 World Cup matches. That man plays for LAFC.
Eduard Atuesta has been busy since leaving LAFC in 2021 to join first-division Brazilian club Palmeiras. He helped the Verdão Periquito win two Brazilian championships, two Paulista trophies, a Brazilian Super Cup, the 2022 Recopa Sudamericana, and runner-up honors at the FIFA Club World Cup. The playmaking midfielder gathered more honors during his four seasons in Los Angeles (2018-2021). Atuesta was named to the MLS 22-Under-22 list in 2018, and made the league’s Best XI squad in 2019. He notched an assist (vs. Club León) and a goal (vs. Club América) during LAFC’s march to the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final. He was an MLS All-Star in 2021.
“We are well aware of the value Eduard brings to LAFC on the pitch,” Thorrington said upon finalizing the Atuesta deal this week, “and we are confident that his quality and added experience will contribute to our success moving forward.”
The Colombian international was dearly missed at BMO Stadium because of his selfless midfield play, his clairvoyant passing, and his congeniality with fans. He sent many a through ball onto the feet of Carlos Vela during the captain’s record-setting 2019 season (34 MLS goals).
And now he’s back.
The suggestion box is open for nickname ideas for LAFC’s pacy Uruguayan winger – the 21-year-old who sprinted into LAFC’s starting lineup in last year’s summer transfer window and never left.
El Torbellino? (The Whirlwind?) El Alborotador? (The Troublemaker?) Uno Rapido? (The Fast One?)
Each of those would work. For now Thorrington and Co. will stick with Kiké (KEE-kay). “I think Kiké will continue to be a phenomenal addition, given his skill set and what he brings to our group. I think if you look at him last year [when Olivera joined the team mid-summer], he succeeded on an individual basis.” Olivera’s impact will only grow, Thorrington added, “when you add his tactical IQ and increased understanding of our system.”
You may have heard of the winger LAFC signed during the previous summer transfer window. Last year Bouanga became MLS’ breakout star, “the most lethal open-field goalscorer in MLS history” (according to Matthew Doyle of MLSSoccer.com), and “arguably the best player in the league” (Thorrington).
Considering the two Golden Boot awards Bouanga won last season (MLS and Conacaf Champions Cup), his status as one of three finalists for MLS MVP, and his place on the MLS Best XI list, it’s a pretty strong argument.
He’s also the perfect player for LAFC’s game model. A human Bugatti roadster who is built like an NFL punt returner, Bouanga played his role to near-perfection in 2023, knifing through defenses, punishing their mistakes, and dishing out 13 assists to go with the MLS-record-tying 38 goals he scored across all competitions.
FC Cincinnati’s Lucho Acosta won MLS MVP in 2023. But the consensus across the league is that the most dangerous man in MLS plays in Los Angeles.