April 24, 2024

Eduard Atuesta is the only player on the current LAFC roster who was there for the franchise’s first game in 2018. But he hasn’t been with the team the whole time, and he need look no further than the shirt on his back to be reminded of what he missed.

There, above the crest on the left breast of the team’s warm-ups, is the bright white star LAFC earned by winning the MLS Cup 11 months after Atuesta left for Brazil. LAFC played in a second MLS Cup final last fall, two months before he came back.

So while Atuesta was there for the start, he wasn’t around for the team’s greatest triumphs. And that has given him something to play for in his return.

“I hope now we can win things that we have not yet won,” he said in Spanish over a cappuccino in the lobby of the team’s preseason hotel. “That is my goal, to continue winning titles, to continue writing history, as I did from the beginning.”

A lot has changed since that beginning. Bob Bradley is gone, replaced as manager by Steve Cherundolo. Cristian Arango, the team’s leading scorer in Atuesta’s final season, is gone too; the offense now runs through Denis Bouanga, the league’s leading scorer last season. And Carlos Vela, LAFC’s long-time captain, remains unsigned and out of uniform.

In fact, just three players on LAFC’s current roster were there when Atuesta left after the 2021 season. Even the stadium name is different; it’s BMO Stadium now, not Banc of California.

For Atuesta, however, everything feels the same.

“It’s like coming home,” he said. “I was here from Day 1.”

But then he left. An MLS All-Star and Best XI pick, Atuesta drew offers from all over Europe and Latin America before eventually winding up in Brazil with Palmeiras. Atuesta’s contribution there, however, was limited: Although the Colombian made 60 appearances in all competition, starting 18 times, a torn ACL in his right knee early last year limited him to just five minutes in Serie A play.

Still, he considers his 25 months in Brazil to have been time well spent. Not only did Palmeiras lift six trophies — no Colombian has won more with the club, he said — but Atuesta also grew as a player.

“I’m more mature, physically also much stronger,” he said. “When you get injured there are few positive things. One of those is you can live in the gym and you can accumulate work that during the season is very difficult to get.”

Yet the injury also hastened his return to LAFC on a loan that includes an option to buy.

“Generally when a player returns from an injury he has to fight to add minutes again, add games again. When I saw this opportunity, it was easy for me to say I want to go,” he said. “It is a place that I already know, where I feel good.”

For all the similarities, Atuesta, 26, is returning to a different club from the one he left. In his first stint at LAFC, the Colombian was one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS, a position which belongs to Ilie Sánchez. But that isn’t so much a problem as it is an opportunity for Cherundolo, who can pair the two in a double pivot, play Atuesta in front of Sánchez or use him as a box-to-box midfielder.

“We knew what he was like as a person,” said Cherundolo, who was coaching LAFC’s affiliate in the USL Championship during Atuesta’s final season in MLS. “His qualities in the field are really, really amazing. His passing and his ability to break down pressure, his vision is pretty good.

“We’ll have many different looks and different ways to play. Each opponent has its own challenges and strengths and weaknesses. This is another way for us to break them down.”

That versatility is actually one of Atuesta’s greatest strengths, one he used to great effect under Bradley, leading LAFC in assists once and ranking second to Vela with a career-high eight assists in the team’s 2019 Supporters’ Shield season.

“With Bob, I played in Ilie’s position. With Steve, I will be much more dangerous,” Atuesta said.

But will it pay off in another star above the crest on the team’s warm-ups? LAFC hasn’t missed the MLS Cup final since Atuesta left so he knows fingers will be pointed his way if the team doesn’t get back to the title game this season.

And there are other titles to win as well.

“We have not won the [U.S.] Open Cup. The Leagues Cup we have not won either,” he said. “There are very good teams in the league and it is not going to be easy to maintain three, four, five years reaching the final. We are going to try.”

“I would like to win a lot of trophies here because now I feel that pressure, like if I don’t win I’m not going to feel good about myself, you understand?” he continued. “You see people like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan with that philosophy, that you have to win to be successful. I want that for this team.”

Because after writing the first chapters in LAFC history, Atuesta said the story isn’t finished yet.

“I want to write the next steps for this team.”

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