June 19, 2024

LAFC’s season opener is less than a month away, yet the team opened training camp this week with just 16 players under contract.

“You only need 11,” one team executive said.

Although that’s true, general manager John Thorrington said Thursday he’s making progress on filling the 14 vacant roster spots just the same.

“Nobody [more] than me would love to have the full roster right now,” he said. “I wish it was done. But there are reasons for it. It’s not because we’re not working.”

Those reasons, Thorrington said, include the shortest offseason in club history following a 2023 season that was the most arduous in league history. LAFC played 53 games last year, reaching the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League and MLS Cup. No other MLS team this century has played in both finals in the same season.

That left Thorrington just six weeks to rebuild a team that lost 18 players — including five starters from the MLS final — to free agency, loans, transfers or expired contracts. Among those who won’t be back are defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Diego Palacios, goalkeepers Maxime Crepeau and John McCarthy, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and forward Stipe Biuk, who was loaned Thursday to Spanish club Real Valladolid.

Returning, after some uncertainty, is forward Denis Bouanga, the league’s leading scorer in 2023. The club remains in talks with captain Carlos Vela and is hopeful of re-signing him as a free agent. In addition, LAFC added World Cup champion goalkeeper Hugo Lloris last month and has welcomed back center back Eddie Segura, who missed the last season and a half after tearing the ACL in his right knee.

Thorrington said he’s still waiting for Lloris and Bouanga to arrive from Europe but expects to have both players in camp by the end of the month. Beyond that, he said, there was nothing to announce.

Yet.

“The heavy lifting has been done, the announcements are to come,” he said. “From the outside, people can’t see what’s around the corner. I can and our staff can. And we’re really excited.”

Thorrington said the team needs a left back to replace Palacios, would like to add some depth in the midfield and is “having advanced discussions with some experienced players in the attack as well.”

Fitting them all under the salary cap could scramble those plans, however. MLS roster rules, which include a payroll limit of $5.7 million, are designed to make it challenging for teams to be successful over several seasons. Still, LAFC, which played in the last two MLS Cup finals, is the winningest team in the Western Conference since its expansion season in 2018.

That has left Thorrington in a constant state of rebuilding but this winter, he said, was the most difficult.

LAFC general manager John Thorrington looks down on the field during a match at BMO Stadium in 2020.

LAFC general manager John Thorrington looks down on the field during a match at BMO Stadium in 2020.

(LAFC)

“Our offseason work was concentrated into a much shorter period than we are used to,” he said. “It has been absolutely nonstop. We are in a very disadvantaged position when it comes to negotiating with free agents because the value of our players has risen because of their success here. Managing a salary cap gets incredibly tight.”

Thorrington said he also had to see who was going before knowing who he could bring in. He was hopeful of keeping Crepeau, for example, but the salary the free agent was asking for wouldn’t fit under the cap. Crepeau signed with Portland instead. The same goes with Acosta, a 2022 World Cup player who reportedly has drawn interest from Chicago, Colorado and Sporting Kansas City.

“You have to make moves, departures, to create the space to bring people in. And when you’re doing it right before Christmas, it does delay things a little bit,” he said. “But having said that, we have a core here that we’re really excited about. And we have some additions that we will be in position to announce very shortly.”

Improving over the last two seasons will be a challenge, Thorrington conceded. LAFC won both the Supporters’ Shield (most overall points) and MLS Cup in 2022, then played in three Cup finals last season, losing to Tigres on penalties in the Campeones Cup in September beside the Champions League and MLS Cup title games. Although the team failed to lift a trophy in 2023, the general manager said the season was successful just the same.

“It is true we didn’t achieve our ultimate objective? Absolutely. Are we disappointed about that? For sure,” he said. “But we would be remiss to categorize the year as a disappointment.

“We did things that no team has ever done before. If you think back to what our players had to go through, just make it back to the final by repeating as Western Conference champions, there’s a lot to be proud of.”

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