Here's some insight on how LAFC, MLS's next expansion team, will be built
LOS ANGELES – LAFC has the delivery down. That much is evident.
Major League Soccer’s next expansion club has a downtown headquarters best described as tech startup meets timeshare presentation.
The interior has high, wood-paneled ceilings, natural lighting and an open floor plan. Almost all visible employees are young, chatty and buoyantly enthusiastic.
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Prospective season-ticket holders, of which there were more than 14,000 as of early February, can sit in rows of mocked-up stadium seating and get a virtual view of their prospective sections inside the under-construction Banc of California Stadium. It’s all very immersive and impressively slick.
How all of this translates into the on-field product that will make its MLS debut next March remains anybody’s guess.
Los Angeles Football Club still does not have a coach – not that that’s particularly uncommon at this stage of the expansion process – and though it recently announced an on-loan signing via its minor-league affiliate, no big-name players have yet to be unveiled.
In an interview last week at LAFC HQ, general manager John Thorrington stuck mostly to core values and organizational culture and how the club will come to reflect the city its name represents.
Along the way, he dropped some more tangible hints about what that’s going to look like in practice.
Thorrington laid out his vision for a team that echoes the Showtime Lakers of his youth with a steeliness that balances the “glamour side with the grittiness that is the majority of people’s reality of L.A.; the idea that if you come to L.A., there is this opportunity that, if I work, I will make it.”
Pressed on what that might actually look like on a soccer field, he is more insightful.
“We do need to be fun and exciting to watch,” said Thorrington, the appropriately tanned face of the franchise who attended high school in southwest Los Angeles County. “We want to be creative, dynamic, ambitious – all those things we think of when we think of L.A. We want that represented in our team. We want to be diverse, youthful, exuberant, expressive. We want a coach that fits that.”
So no pressure, hypothetical coach.
Former U.S. men’s national team and Swansea City boss Bob Bradley and longtime Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who lives in Los Angeles, have both been mooted for the gig. And while both Bradley and Schmid remain available, the GM’s comments on the coaching search shed some light on his thought process.
“We would look to be making some movement this summer on the player front,” said Thorrington, who is pushing ahead without a full-time coach in place. “The coach one, and this isn’t a dodge of the question, we don’t want the best coach at X date. We want the best coach. If that means it’s a month later or two months later, we’re looking at this as a long-term, really impactful decision rather than making sure that month goes a little bit smoother.”
There is an awareness of an ever-dwindling countdown clock. Thorrington started to become cognizant of it at the beginning of this calendar year, a sensation driven home by the fact that Los Angeles played host to the MLS SuperDraft in January. He’d attended the league combine and draft in 2016, too, just after he was hired.
“This year was very different,” Thorrington said. “It was, ‘That’s you next year. That’s your No. 1 pick.’ You’re not just scouting for the future, you’re scouting for that No. 1 pick. The pace, the dynamic of every single conversation has picked up speed.”
One perk in being the 23rd franchise in a league that started with 10 teams and folded one of the originals is that there are plenty of colleagues who know exactly what you’re going through. Gavin Wilkinson, technical director of the Portland Timbers, swung by for a few hours prior to the Timbers’ match at the Galaxy last month. Atlanta United brass, in town for the draft, was also receptive to a brainstorming session about the nuts and bolts of building a team from scratch.
Thorrington himself went through the expansion process as a player with the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011, and he finds inspiration in another Cascadia team, Seattle Sounders, who won over their home city from the opening kickoff. Between season-ticket sales and general buzz, Thorrington thinks LAFC is on a similar track.
“That’s special in a market like L.A., where it’s usually player-driven or star-driven,” he said. “I know this city. I know it’s not easy to get people’s attention. But we are showing and proving that there is an appetite for soccer in downtown L.A.”
Besides being a subtle dig at the Los Angeles Galaxy, which plays its home matches 13 miles south of the city center in Carson, that quote also begs the question as to whether such early gains have affected LAFC’s player recruitment strategy.
If they’re already moving tickets at a reasonable rate, does it mean less pressure to sign a big-name star whose name resonates with casual fans?
“I wouldn’t say it changed but rather affirmed what I think, which is that it has to start with what you get on the field,” Thorrington said. “The first criteria and decision-driver is how is this impacting your on-field product quality.
“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive concepts. What I would say is that it has to impact us on the field. If you get both, that’s fantastic. We start with what the player is going to offer on the field.”
That approach is inevitably going to draw comparisons with Atlanta United, perhaps the most immediately ambitious expansion club in league history. Atlanta has a brand-name coach in Gerardo “Tata” Martino, previously of FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team, and spent heavily on three impact Designated Players, none of whom is older than 23.
“What I love about what they’re doing is that it’s different,” Thorrington said. “Within our league and our construct, you can find different ways of doing things and find club identities and cultures that are unique to your team.
“But we’re not about copying anybody else. I think that would be a mistake.”
LAFC can certainly talk the talk. Whether it can back it up will become clearer in the coming months.
Matt Pentz covers Major League Soccer for FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.