24 Thoughts: Why LAFC is positioned to dominate MLS for years to come

Uruguayan forward Brian Rodriguez was one of two blue-chip South American prospects to join LAFC midway though its Supporters Shield-winning 2019 season. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today)
Uruguayan forward Brian Rodriguez was one of two blue-chip South American prospects to join LAFC midway though its Supporters Shield-winning 2019 season. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today)

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

After clinching the Supporters’ Shield with a 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night, just four points stand between LAFC and the highest single-season point total in MLS history. A win and a tie in the club’s last two games — at playoff-bound Minnesota United and at home on Decision Day to a Colorado Rapids side that could be eliminated from postseason contention by then — would be enough to pull off the feat. What a story that would be for the second-year club.

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Yet there’s another story regarding LAFC that has mostly flown under the radar. Over the summer, with Carlos Vela and Co. well on their way to a record-setting campaign, the club added two blue-chip and heavily sought-after young talents from South America in 19-year-old Uruguayan forward Brian Rodriguez and Diego Palacios, 20, a left back from Ecuador.

Both players had legitimate options in Europe. Yet both opted for MLS in what is becoming a trend across the league, with LAFC at the forefront.

“For us as a club, the goal has always been to build a foundation for us to be sustainably successful by seeking constant improvement in everything we do,” LAFC general manager and executive vice president of soccer ops John Thorrington told Yahoo Sports. “These are two young players that we think will help us increase our competitiveness on the field right away, but certainly will grow with us for many years into the future.”

24 Thoughts

1. How did LAFC land Rodriguez and Palacios? Let’s start with the former, who was signed as a designated player Aug. 7. “With the sale of Andre Horta, we knew we would have the flexibility to add a DP,” Thorrington said of Horta, the 22-year-old midfielder who was sold to Braga in his native Portugal in July.

“And to be clear, it was not that we were going to definitely utilize that flexibility just because we had it. But our scouts and our technical staff always has a running list of targets, and we saw him, Brian, a player that had been on our radar for quite some time, and he had a bit of a coming out at the under-20 World Cup.”

2. Still, there’s an element of risk involved when you’re talking about a teenager who had just 18 first team appearances for Montevideo club Penarol and who had never played outside of his home country. But LAFC’s scouts were sold. “It was that conviction from our football people of what he would bring us on the field and the commitment of our owners to fulfill this ambition of being a global brand,” Thorrington said. “And the timing was such that we were able to strike in the face of quite a bit of competition from Europe.”

3. Palacios was in a different situation. He’d already spent last season in Europe, with Eredivisie club Willem II while on loan from from Ecuadoran side Aucas, and started more than 30 matches, including the Dutch Cup final against UEFA Champions League semifinalist Ajax.

4. “There were many teams that were interested, and we had four actual offers in writing,” Aucas’s American-born president Danny Walker told Yahoo over the phone on Thursday. “One of them was from Barcelona. The problem was that he didn’t have a European Union passport.”

Diego Palacios helped Ecuador to a third-place finish at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup. (Getty)
Diego Palacios helped Ecuador to a third-place finish at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup. (Getty)

5. La Liga restrictions on non-EU players meant that Barca would have sent Palacios to Barcelona B, which competes in the Spanish second tier. But that seemed like a step down for a player who had already established himself in a top-flight European circuit. With the MLS transfer window closing, LAFC had to act fast.

6. Palacios was open to the idea, especially after Walker consulted with his friend, the legendary Dutch scout Piet De Visser. “He agreed that going to LAFC was a very good choice,” Walker said.

7. “We had an opportunity literally on the morning of the day the transfer window closed that earlier in the window we didn’t think was there,” Thorrington said. “The timing meant we knew exactly how much we had to spend. And we were able to get it across the line.”

8. For Thorrington, selling LAFC to players has become significantly easier. When he was trying to lure Vela or Rodriguez’s fellow Uruguayan Diego Rossi before the franchise’s inaugural season in 2018, it was less tangible.

9. “It’s funny,” he said. “When I had to sell Rossi the idea of LAFC, I was showing him stadium renderings. Now I can go to Brian or Diego and just show them. We were able to show them these wild moments that we’ve had over our first 18 months. That’s really powerful.”

10. MLS has become a destination for South American players in recent years. Atlanta United signed Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron before its maiden campaign, then used some the $27 million it got from selling Almiron to Newcastle on CONMEBOL Player of the Year Pity Martinez. But LAFC’s targets have been younger. Rossi is still just 21. Colombian midfielder Eduard Atuesta — who scored a peach of a free kick Wednesday — is 22.

11. “With the broadening of scouting departments across the league, more and more clubs are looking in the same markets that we are,” Thorrington said. “We’re attracting talent that in years past would’ve gone elsewhere, and if you look at the economics of these deals, the cost of acquisition might be higher for a 24-year-old because there’s a larger sample size. I do think you’re starting to see teams go younger.”

12. MLS made the right decision to allow banners featuring the Iron Front logo to be flown inside its stadiums fo the rest of the year. It’s clearly something supporters groups feet strongly about, and opposing hateful ideology and supporting human rights obviously shouldn’t be controversial.

13. That said, I’m little puzzled by the obsession with this particular symbol. The overwhelming majority of the general public has no idea what it means. Surely something like the Sounders’ “Anti-racist, anti-fascist, always Seattle” flags — which the league didn’t ban — sends a much clearer message.

San Jose Earthquakes coach Matias Almeyda (blue suit) doesn't seem to be a fan of MLS officiating. (Rich von Biberstein/Getty)
San Jose Earthquakes coach Matias Almeyda (blue suit) doesn't seem to be a fan of MLS officiating. (Rich von Biberstein/Getty)

14. What’s going on in San Jose? The club has lost four straight, and coach Mathias Almeyda got himself sent off for the second time in a month last weekend.

15. Almeyda was suspended Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Union, but I wonder if the league tacks on another game given the Argentine’s history. MLS gave him two additional matches last time, a relatively lenient sentence given the offense. A source with knowledge of what transpired told me that Almeyda pushed and threatened the fourth official, then did the same to an LAFC security guard who was trying to stop him from running into the stands to confront a fan at Banc of California Stadium.

16. Whether the Quakes recover in time to make the playoffs or not, don’t be shocked if Almeyda isn’t back in MLS next season.

17. Hearing that while Atlanta’s Josef Martinez will definitely miss this weekend’s trip to Montreal but that he could return in time for the Decision Day tilt against New England.

18. Speaking of Montreal, the Impact broke Toronto FC’s three-year stranglehold on the Canadian Championship by beating the Reds on penalties Wednesday at BMO Field. It’s the third final TFC has lost via penalties since its 2016 MLS Cup defeat to Seattle. Chivas Guadalajara topped Toronto from the spot to win last year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

19. I live in Montreal. The Impact are far more relevant here than most MLS teams in their cities. But you still wouldn’t have known Thursday that the Bleu-Blanc-Noir had just been crowned national champs and clinched a spot in the Champions League — a competition that the club almost won against Mexico’s Club America in front of a standing room-only Olympic Stadium crowd in 2015. Maybe that’s because the match wasn’t televised in Canada. (It was streamed on OneSoccer.) Thats not good enough. Canada Soccer needs to ensure that future Canadian Championship finals are available to the widest possible audience.

20. The New York Red Bulls snapped a three-game losing streak by reeling off impressive wins in Portland and at home to I-95 rival Philadelphia. The timing is good. Last week, multiple sources suggested to me that Red Bulls coach Chris Armas’s job could be in danger.

Chris Armas led the New York Red Bulls to the Supporters' Shield a year ago. (Vincent Carchietta/USA Today)
Chris Armas led the New York Red Bulls to the Supporters' Shield a year ago. (Vincent Carchietta/USA Today)

21. As an organization, Red Bull is not known for patience. They fired Bruce Arena in 2007 after less than two seasons at the helm. (Arena went on to win his third, fourth and fifth MLS Cups with the LA Galaxy.) Mike Petke was let go in 2014 after winning the Supporters’ Shield in his first season and reaching the Eastern Conference final in his second.

22. That doesn’t make the prospect of firing Armas any less crazy. The native New Yorker is less than a year removed from leading New York to the best regular season in MLS history — no small feat after taking over midseason from Jesse Marsch.

23. Armas’s work this year has been almost as good despite the fact that he’s had next to no support from his bosses. The Red Bulls did not replace their best player, Tyler Adams, when he was sold to sister club RB Leipzig for seven figures. Armas has had to deal with three disgruntled starters in Kaku, Kemar Lawrence and Aaron Long, all of whom were miffed that the club turned down transfer offers from teams in stronger leagues. Yet with star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips sidelined by injury most of the season, Armas coaxed 20 goals out of Daniel Royer and the previously unknown Brian White. He’s not the problem at Red Bull Arena.

24. Whether or not LAFC breaks the regular season points record, Bob Bradley is a lock for MLS coach of the year. Adrian Heath (Minnesota) and Jim Curtin (Philadelphia) have quite rightly been in the conversation. Another name that hasn’t but should be? New York City FC’s Dome Torrent.

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