Youth Paying Dividends On All Levels For LAFC

The first, and arguably most important, goal in LAFC history was scored by a teenager. 

That’s not an indictment of the age of the goal scorer – Diego Rossi actually turned 20 the day after the Club’s first goal. Nor is it a mere bit of LAFC trivia, as Rossi was the youngest player in MLS history to score the first goal of an expansion team’s inaugural season.

The first goal in LAFC history, the age of its scorer included, was by design. All part of a larger plan to build a Club prepared to win in its inaugural season and in the years to come.

On Thursday, MLS revealed the remaining 11 players on its “22 Under 22” list, showcasing the best young players under the age of 22. Already unveiled were LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta at No. 16, André Horta at 13, and Latif Blessing at 11. In the final reveal, Rossi was named the third-best player under 22 in MLS.

“From the start, we talked about young talent,” Bob Bradley said about the genesis of his team in its first season. “We felt that in order to build our Club and have attacking ideas, there were young players that we felt could give us something.

“So we talked about attacking players who could play from wide areas, come inside, and could be threats to get to the goal. And so, Diego and Latif fit into that category pretty well. We talked about midfield play in terms of controlling the game, understanding both in attack and defense how to stay connected, and I think Eduard and André fit into those categories. We’re excited that some of the young players have played such big roles for us this season. We keep pushing them every day because the talent that all four possess can get to an even higher level.”

In addition to the individual recognition of Rossi, Blessing, Horta, and Atuesta, as a Club, LAFC’s four players on the “22 Under 22” list are the most of any of MLS’ 23 teams. With the Club sitting in third place in the Western Conference and boasting one of the four lowest average ages of teams in MLS, it’s reinforcement of a philosophy envisioned by LAFC EVP of Soccer Operations and GM John Thorrington from the start of his tenure with the Club.

“That’s a great testament to our scouting, our player identification, and our player recruitment. I think that’s also a thank you to our ownership that they’ve invested and understood the importance of these young players to our soccer operation and they made those resources available,” Thorrington said of the four LAFC players on the list. “I also want to give credit to our staff. One of the things we identified in Bob [Bradley] very early, one of the things which made him the right coach for us, is that we knew he would get the most out of those established veterans but could also really help develop these players in the next step and phases of their career, which we are seeing this year.”

Before LAFC had its first player, Thorrington and his staff had already outlined the team they intended to build. The ideal roster featured a win-now approach, but without sacrificing long-term success in the years ahead.

With that in mind, the philosophy immediately became the balancing act between experience and youthful exuberance.

“It’s incredibly important to have a balance between experience and youth. There is no substitute for fresh, young, exciting legs,” LAFC VP of Soccer Operation and Assistant GM Will Kuntz said of the first roster’s foundations. “It’s important for us to know we have players to build around for the future as well.”

LAFC has already seen a return from its investment in youth in the success of Rossi, Blessing, Horta, and Atuesta. The Club became just the third expansion team in MLS history to hit the 50-point mark with a win over San Jose two weeks ago. And with four matches left to play, LAFC are seven points from breaking the 1998 Chicago Fire’s record points-total of 56 by an expansion team in its inaugural season. And all four players have played a large part in that success.

But with all the accolades thus far this season, it’s just a part of LAFC’s bigger picture in terms of youth development.

Before the success of its first team, the Club set out to cultivate some of the best local talent on the academy level as well. Without a player signed to the first-team roster, the LAFC Academy took to the fields of Los Angeles and immediately made its impact known.

Now in its third year, the Academy has lifted two major trophies, including the first U13 Concacaf Champions League trophy in U.S. history, as well as being named the top Academy in U13 and U14 age groups by Top Drawer Soccer earlier this year. It’s that commitment to young talent at all levels of the organization, in addition to the recognition of the four players on the “22 Under 22,” that highlights LAFC’s strategy to date.

But Thorrington is also cognizant of the work that remains.

“All of those players have an incredibly bright future in the game. The talent is there, and I think they’re being recognized in part because of what they’ve already done but in large part due to their potential,” Thorrington said. “The key for them is making sure that that potential is fulfilled. They have everything here that they need to succeed with our staff, our facilities, our infrastructure, and the stage that they play on every other week at Banc of California Stadium. If they keep their heads down and work, it will be really exciting to see all of the potential that they have fulfilled.”

Kuntz puts an even finer point on what’s to come from LAFC.

“We’re incredibly proud of the guys, we’re incredibly happy,” Kuntz said. “Like I said earlier, the jobs not done yet.

“We have a lot of guys here who are still under 22 and can still be on this list next year.”

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