Win, lose, or draw, John Thorrington has rewatched every single LAFC match this season.
Except for one.
"I rewatched a couple of plays. I did not and still have not watched the game in its entirety," Thorrington said of the 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake that ended his team's season. "Normally, I watch our games after the fact, but I probably won’t. I don’t see anything that I would gain from it. So, no, I probably won’t.
"I mean the coaches have each watched maybe 42 times, so I’d be repeating work."
As EVP and GM of Soccer Operations for LAFC, Thorrington is in charge of making sense of moments like LAFC's playoff ouster, but he just can't bring himself to relive the match with a rewatch. It's still too raw, even a week later. And he's already moved on to the next step anyways: building for 2019.
"Despite knowing that it’s possible, you still feel like you fell off a cliff. There’s no soft landing," Thorrington said. "And you quickly have to pick up the debris from the crash and that’s been our work. There’s no time to rest on our laurels now. We have to make decisions internally and then what we are doing to strengthen. And that process started a long time ago, but it just continues now."
At the LAFC Performance Center on Thursday, I had a chance to chat with Thorrington about the Club's inaugural season and what the future has in store. Below is the transcript of the Q&A in order:
How did you process the playoff loss?
It was obviously tough. You know that it’s possible your season can end when you are in a knockout round game. I think the way the game unfolded resulted in a certain type of frustration that I would oddly prefer. I would oddly prefer the frustration I felt after that game which was we couldn’t have done much more to win the game. Obviously, there were plays we could have maybe pulled off under different circumstances, finish your chances, or what have you, but in terms of how we executed the game model and the plan, it went fairly well, the result aside.
I’m not a luck guy, I’m a probabilities guy, and the probability of that confluence of unlikely events all happening in one game is so unlikely that it’s frustrating, but at the same time it’s a more palatable frustration when you look and see the guys played their hearts out and did everything to win the game. We just ended up on the wrong side of the result. That somehow is a better frustration than if we hadn’t played well.
Looking at the big picture, how do you see the Club's inaugural season?
The positives are there for us to build upon. The idea coming was to be competitive out the gates and every team has the same goal: win MLS Cup and win Open Cup. And we were no different, and I think we were close on both. Setting the trajectory, I think that, regardless of what happens in the one-off games and playoffs, that’s a separate conversation. I think we can say we are pleased with that. What we had there for us this year, that’s the frustrating part. I do think we didn’t see being an expansion team as an excuse. We wanted to be competitive and we quickly saw that we could. And we felt there was more out there for us this year, which is the frustrating part that we’re not playing anymore.
Was there a moment in 2018 that you feel encapsulated the vision you’d put into action for the Club?
It was an interesting start to the season. Obviously, there is so much turbulence the whole year because you are an expansion team. But at the beginning, we weren’t in this building yet [referring to the LAFC Performance Center]. We were at UCLA. We were on the road every week. I think the Salt Lake game, game two of our season, to play like we did was incredible and was a really gratifying feeling to come out the gates with two wins. And then you have the low of the Galaxy game, despite performing well for large portions of the game. An interesting bit that I think people wouldn’t expect, we lost the next game 5-0 in Atlanta, which people thought the wheels are falling off. And everybody said that. But oddly, in that game, our response coming off the Galaxy game, I wasn’t sure because we had never done that before, but I think we showed a lot about our resolve. People will say we lost that game 5-0, but in that game, we actually did show up. We were confident, we took the game to them, and in the end, the result was what it was. But that actually oddly in a 5-0 loss told me a lot of positive things about our team.
It would have been harder to set up a more disheartening loss than that Galaxy game, and then to have to go to one of the best teams in the league to see what we were all about, I think we showed a lot there. There have been various times throughout this year where we had a disappointing defeat or experience. That type of stuff says a lot about the group because we knew very early what we could be when things are all going well, but when things aren’t going well, how quickly can we respond?
I think those various times throughout the year when we responded well told me a lot about the group. It had us all believing we had something special going on here, and not just long term, but on our day, we can compete with anyone.
When did the work start for 2019?
There are players we talked about bringing in that we first saw well over a year ago. You go down concurrent paths. There’s the here and now, and always there are contingency plans based on what you know might happen or predict may happen. We had two player sales this season that I don’t think you could predict, but you need to have all these plans in place in order to be able to withstand the unforeseen injuries or sales or whatever may happen. So, the planning for 2019 started last year.
How have the success and failures of this season shaped that plan?
There are a lot of things under consideration positionally and what have you. Then as you go on, your refining of what you are doing becomes more informed. You see what’s happening with certain guys, how are these two playing together, whatever it may be, health or contractual status. All those types of things combined with performance start to inform those decisions of how can we best spend our resources to improve.
How does winning inform for your decisions and how does losing inform your decisions?
There are times we went from highs to lows very quickly. Winning is a habit. You want guys that are winners and relentlessly pursue championships and trophies. We want guys that are intrinsically driven in that way.
Losing is going back to what I said is people’s response. I think it’s easier when things are going well. Winning covers sins a lot of times. We do not have a staff that when we win, they turn the page. They dissect every detail win or lose, and I think that’s gone a long way to help us progress throughout the year.
Is there a through line from this season to next?
Bob [Bradley] says it well, and it summarizes what we are about. From Day 1, before we had a coach, before we had a player, we said what type of team we wanted to be. We wanted to entertain and be exciting. We wanted to play good football. All these things then inform the decision on Bob being the best guy for that plan and executing that vision. It’s all aligned, who the staff and who the players are.
I think when Bob talks, and I’m paraphrasing here, we’re so convicted about that being our identity and so disciplined in what we want to be, that in the difficult times our answer is not to change. It’s to become better at what we do. I love that about this staff and this group of players. The days when it doesn’t go well it’s not because we have any doubts about how we want to go about building this club. It’s always about becoming better at it. Which takes time.
These other teams that we were up there with in the standings, those teams took years to build. And we by no means, and we showed at times, we’re not a complete team. That’s the job looking ahead to next year.
How important is it to keep the perspective that it takes time? And where do you draw the line?
We’ve set a standard of how we want to compete in this league already. That’s a very exciting prospect of what we hope is to come.
I think the harder thing in MLS is to be sustainably successful. You see teams that have success one year and then the next year not. The really good clubs, and there are a few out there, that have had sustainable success, that is more challenging. And that is our part as a soccer operation is to be consistently delivering championship-caliber teams year in and year out.
And look, the reality is we’ll be cycling through different groups of players. We will have a lot of continuity, and we’ve built our roster intentionally to have a significant group upon which we can continue to build, but that is the harder challenge. Not to have success just in one year. There are unique challenges to having success in your first year as an expansion team. But for us, we talk about being the best club of this version of MLS. The best club for the next 20 years.
What excites you most about the Club other than the first team?
We had a lengthy conversation this morning with technical staff and how excited we are to connect. We have this bottom-up vision with our Academy. We started with 12-year-olds and now those 12-year-olds are 15-year-olds. They’re getting closer and closer to becoming professionals. We’re already connected philosophically, but actually having them graduate and connect our Academy with players that are stepping on to the training field and stadium with our first team is incredibly exciting. Our Academy staff is fantastic. They have already in a very short time period set a very high standard of how we play and the individuals we have, and we’re certainly really excited with some of the prospects we will have coming through in the next few years.
[Editor's Note: I asked Thorrington a succession of rapid-fire questions where I gave him a topic and he could answer with the first thing that came to mind.]
I went through all the preparation a year ago on the other side of this, which is really exciting. It’s not that exciting on this side, which is because in order to build a really good competitive team it takes more than 11 guys. And we’re only certain 11 guys will be here with a few automatically protected guys. So yeah, it’s not an entirely comfortable feeling going into an expansion draft. But we benefitted from it last year, so I would be a bit hypocritical to complain about it this year.
Similarly, it’s very different for us this year. Last year, we knew we had the top pick. We traded to get the third pick. We got two young prospects that we’re really excited about. This year given where we finished, it’s very different looking ahead. That said, there have been players that come out of the Supplemental Round. We’ll go into the draft having done our research and knowing our targets, both our needs positionally and what’s available when it comes time for us to pick. We don’t leave any stone unturned, so we’re certainly not going in thinking it’s impossible to get something. We’re hopeful we can get something of value.
Statistically, if you were to look and pick something out, we gave up more goals than we would like to this year and we’ll address it.
Our midfield is very important in terms of how we play, and despite Mark-Anthony Kaye’s injury, it’s a position of great depth for us. I think some of our best performers this year played in there. It’s the way we play. It’s very demanding for those guys. I think in certain cases, it took a bit of time to get up to speed, but once they did, I think it’s so key to how we play and so key to our success, and a lot of those guys can be very proud of their contribution this year.
We showed, and that was our priority, that we wanted to attack and be exciting. Certainly, that was reflected in our play with the number of games where we scored two, three, four goals. That was one of our strengths. We’ve got some very, very talented attacking pieces that we think when we start to become even more complete, they will continue to progress.
We had two of them that were here from the beginning. Signature signings well ahead of the preseason and had a full preseason. We have three very different DPs. You have Carlos [Vela], Diego [Rossi], and André [Horta]. André was the exception that he came halfway through the year, had a couple of hiccups with injury, and was not as easy of a transition with the guys who could come in and have the full preseason of preparation. But we have high hopes for all three of them, that they will continue to be a significant part of our success.
How bright is the LAFC's future one year into the process?
It’s crazy to think, a year ago we had two players. Maybe. And to think how busy this stretch was, and there’s still a lot of work to do for us to improve for next year, but just now knowing our home base and the vast majority of our squad will stay, there’s already a path that will eliminate so much of the turbulence. We don’t use being an expansion team as an excuse, and we had, thankfully, from the top down very steady hands at the wheel and we managed all of those things. But a lot of those get eliminated now that we’ve been here before. Our players, each and every training session, let alone a full season’s worth, start to get to know what is expected of them on the field and off the field. Our connection with our city and our supporters has really great roots now. And again, this foundational piece, we’ve put one block down, and we’re excited about the potential of what should come now.
Anything I missed? Any last words on the 2018 season?
I think for us, there’s no solace right now that we’re watching a game that we think we should be playing. That’s tonight, and that’ll be the case through MLS Cup final. I think in time we will regain perspective and say a lot of the goals we had set out, philosophically and laying the foundation, were achieved. I think the frustration is there was potential to do more in the short term. The medium and the long term, we feel good about.
But the short term is a bitter pill to swallow right now.