For John Thorrington it’s all about the hard work, from his playing days in MLS all the way to his new position as Co-President & General Manager of LAFC, one of MLS flagship teams. It would seem that building a team from scratch has become common practice in MLS with the league's expansion in the last ten years.
When LAFC kicked off all the way back in 2014 the club wanted to do things a bit differently than their cross-town rivals the Los Angeles Galaxy. From building a stadium at the heart of urban Los Angeles to player identification, LAFC wants to be the new model for MLS in the future.
Still stung by what could have been in the final of last year's CONCACAF Champions League, John Thorrington knows that LAFC is on the right track. In their three years, LAFC has had two of the past golden boot winners in Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, a record breaking 2019 season, and a plan to become one of the best teams in the region.
What LAFC wants to accomplish in 2021
Bolavip: What are the KPIs for LAFC this season? At least on the sporting side, what does the team want to accomplish in 2021?
John Thorrington: For us at LAFC our goals don’t typically change, I think we evolved from year 1, year 2, and year 3 in terms of goals. We want to compete and win every competition we’re in. And this year is no different… Last year we were in MLS and Champions League and our objective is always to win, and in order to do so, we want to do it with an attractive and attacking style of play. So, I think for us we are very committed to how we play, and as a result of how we play, we are always carrying the ambition to win everything we are in. So, this year, hopefully we qualify for the Open Cup, its MLS regular season, its MLS Cup… We would also like to be back in (CONCACAF) Champions League given (how close we were to winning it last year).
BV: How important was it for a new expansion team like LAFC to come out full throttle like you did, while also trying to maintain real expectations with regards to achievable goals and results on the field for a brand-new team?
JT: I think for us, I referenced our goals coming into our expansion year were slightly different than they were in year 2. We want to improve each year, knowing that our record setting year (2019) is difficult to improve upon… I think for us, we are certainly committed to both our financial model and how that is reflected on the field. And I think for us we are starting to see the evolution of that first group of players. We signed a whole group of players and it was unclear exactly how they would all integrate. I think to date it has gone well, and we certainly have met many of our objectives, there are a few outstanding objectives, which would be an MLS Cup, an Open Cup, a Champions League trophy, so we still have a lot to work on, but we certainly trust in a lot of the work that has been done. The objective at the beginning was to lay a foundation and set the trajectory of this club, and I think we’ve done that, and for now that trajectory is the continued development of our players, it’s inevitable that some of these players will be moving on, which is something we have planned for. The last part of that is winning trophies and we have a Supporters Shield but we are certainly hungry for more.
BV: Were you surprised by how LAFC took the city by storm? The amount of interest in the new team? Considering LA already had a very successful club in the Los Angeles Galaxy?
JT: I think am pleasantly surprised at the vision that was initially held by our owners, it certainly convinced a very hungry staff both on and off the field to achieve those high and lofty ambitions to really gain a foothold within Los Angeles… You could say it is atypical in sports, but it is no different than any business where you do have an existing and incumbent competitor and what are you going to do to challenge them? And I think what we did was, we focus on what we knew we could do, what we could execute on, and from day one it was very clear that a large portion of our city had an appetite for what we were delivering on, whether that is our location, or stadium, our team, what we stood for. We are very different organizations, part of that is that we are a young and hungry start up, or at least we were at one point, and the (Galaxy) has a legacy of history, which was the most successful throughout that period in MLS and we are not ashamed or afraid to say our goal is to be the model franchise for this next iteration of MLS… We were the first MLS team to build a world class stadium that is specific to soccer in the middle of a big city, and I think now the US is ready for that and our club has shown that.
BV: Do you feel the success of LAFC has been that the Galaxy feel like a Real Madrid, super club, while LAFC are more urban, more community based?
JT: I don’t like to speak in comparison to (LA Galaxy), but what I can say to you, what we focused on, and I think we very tightly defined what we wanted to be and how we wanted to represent our city. I call them decision making filters, and the tighter those are, the more diligence there is to study your options and make a strategic plan. Then once you define those and are committed to them and convicted that you’re on the right path it does make decision making a little bit easier. And I think from the get-go what we said was, “How do we want to represent our city?”, because in order to gain a foothold no matter what sport you’re into, no matter what city you’re in, you need to put something out there and be representative of people in your city who say, “I see myself in that product.” And that sounds really abstract, but that has changed what fits for LAFC versus what fits for Atlanta United. There are similarities in terms of going to South America and identifying some top talent and developing that talent and selling it on, but for us it was also, why did we get Carlos Vela? Well because L.A. is a city of stars… You have this Hollywood star driven culture, which is probably everybody’s external perception of Los Angeles, but people who live in L.A. many of their stories is this person who is still living out this modern-day American dream where their young, their hungry and come to L.A. to make it. We are also a very diverse city, and we have players from all over from Asia, Africa, South America, from Mexico, Canada, and we were very deliberate and intentional about representing all of our city and that was one of our filters that informed what we did on the field… You talk about stars, there is no star that has shined brighter than Carlos Vela… he speaks to a certain part of L.A. in a way that Latif Blessing doesn’t, but their just as important to our overall narrative as to who we are, what we’re about, and how we want to represent our city and our supporters.
BV: How was the process to “sell” LAFC to players like Carlos Vela or Diego Rossi or any other national team caliber player, considering you were an expansion franchise?
JT: Much of the building of LAFC was hard, but it was incredibly exciting, despite the fact that it was a nonstop sprint of a marathon, I do miss some of that… I kept all of the presentations and decks because essentially, part of what I do is I am a salesman for LAFC. When you talk to somebody about a salesman there is this connotation, you’re like the used car guy that is trying to con someone, I always had belief that what we were selling A. I believed in it and B. When it was in concept phase, I was confident that what we were selling would come to pass. Yes, we were selling a vision, the “sale” to Carlos (Vela) was, “Do you want to do something different?”, “You could go and join any team in the world, and you’d make a difference. You are a fantastic player, you’ve been at the top level in Spain, played in England, played in World Cups, you’ve done everything. You could go to a team and make a difference for sure, but do you want to come and be THE guy, the cornerstone, who is going to build something different, and you can get as dramatically romantic with it as you can change soccer in the United States.” So to all of our players, what excited them, we said “we believe that the sport is at an inflection point in North America and I believe that in 10 years people are gonna say, “wow look at MLS and how it has grown” and I believe people will say “who is responsible for this growth?” and I believe LAFC , I hope anyways, will be one of the variables that people will point to say “wow look at the growth of this league, they have the stadium, they have the on field product, they have the coach, they have a really good business and Football operation, that has helped the league get there and how did they do it? Because of these players.” I think that it is a privilege to go to players and say “if that excites you, you’re the right player for LAFC", and that self-selected everybody from Carlos (Vela), to Bob (Bradley), to many of our executives to many of our sales people, and that sense of excitement of really wanting to build something big and having this be a passion project… It's this excitement and connection with our city of really building something special, yes I “sold” to people but it was not an entirely difficult sell.
BV: You said selecting the right people was one of the cornerstones, well you did just that in hiring Bob Bradley as the clubs first coach. How was it to convince Bob to return to MLS?
JT: The ambition that Bob showed and the success he had. I think that has gotten lost due to a specific situation (Swansea City), Bob has blazed a trail in Europe that I think was behind the same trail that was blazed by players that have opened doors for coaches, for players, to go to Europe. And we don’t shy away from where we stand in the global landscape. Bob was the first coach that came to mind when I took this position, at the time it was impossible and the timing didn’t work out, and the world has a funny way with timing, and while I think Bob was certainly hard done by, it was to our benefit. I’ve known Bob for a long time, I had the benefit of having played for Bob a few times, I knew him really well, anybody who has a history with the Chicago Fire it is inevitable that you learn what Bob did and built in Chicago. For so many reasons he was a great fit for us and was the reason why he was the first candidate that was mentioned… I think time has shown that I will be bold enough and arrogant about this, but that I have hired well. And he is certainly a case of that.
LAFC an their Latin American pipeline
BV: You guys have a heavy Latin America squad, how is the scouting network for LAFC, what goes into the process of player identification? Does LAFC work with certain scouts in Latin America?
JT: For us as we mapped out what do we want to be on the field, we have constraints, and they are real constraints… What we did was we identified key markets that we thought would help execute on this vision of what we wanted our team to be, whether it was the profile of a player, the personality of a player, and then the economics and the market value of certain countries and their ability to translate well into Los Angeles. Carlos was the first, he is Mexican and is very important to the Mexican population and he was in Europe. Diego (Rossi) came from Uruguay, and we have a number of players from Uruguay, Colombia, and Ecuador, so we decided to really drill down in markets we thought were good fits. We did not have the luxury of being a mile deep or a mile wide so in our constraints rather than try to be a bit part player in a lot of South American countries, we drilled down deep in targeted South American countries and clubs… We have a head scout in Los Angeles, a scout who is on the ground in Uruguay, and a scout in Colombia. So relative to some of the clubs we are competing with for some of these players that is a skeleton crew, but they are fantastic at what they do…
BV: If there was one thing that stood out for me when you were building the squad was Uruguay as an example, MLS has such a footprint in Argentina, yet LAFC went across the pond so to speak and identified three very talented players from Uruguay. How is it like dealing with a club like Peñarol?
JT: We saw the value in these players, and the difference I think is that (Óscar) Tabárez has no problem calling in MLS players to the (Uruguayan) national team. For me Eduard Atuesta is a national team player, and you can call me biased but Atuesta should absolutely be a Colombian national team player and he’s not. But Diego (Rossi) and Brian (Rodríguez) get called into the national team, and that is helpful to us because these players have national team ambition, and they won’t be compromised by coming here and they see this as a step towards Europe… That is part of the reason why Uruguay has been such fertile ground for us. And dealing with the clubs, we have a long standing and great relationship with Peñarol, we hosted them in a friendly and will do another one with them in the near future. What I love, (Uruguay due to its small population) defies logic as to how competitive Uruguay is in the international scene and the number of players they have developed if you just take that at face value, it’s a great place to go hunting… So much of the Uruguayan player profile fits well in our league. Their willingness to work hard, hungry, and talented.
BV: You mentioned the phases LAFC is in, considering the first-year squad and the possibility that these players will one day move on. How is LAFC entertaining offers at the moment?
JT: It’s always case by case, a number of factors go into it, players are not commodities, the market dictates what the price is, we have a number of players that we have invested in that have increased in value and when the time is right, we will sell them. The definition and how you find when the time is right is a combination of what the player wants and what the club wants, and finding the time when you are balancing, by definition you are losing a valuable asset, and how that is balanced by the impact that will have competitively on our season. My job and our scouts’ job are to be prepared for those scenarios, where the right offer comes in, we discuss with the player and his people, move the player on, and then we are prepared for that scenario. So, we are contingency planning all the time… It is a key part of our business and we will likely execute on this most likely in the summer… Brian (Rodríguez) is an interesting case, if you would have asked me a year ago if I would have sent Brian Rodríguez on loan, I would have said “no chance it makes no sense”. But you have to adapt to what the market tells you and in his case, we knew the MLS season was pushed back, Almeria is in a hunt for promotion… they gave us a very compelling offer, Brain is an incredibly talented player, we met with him, his agent, and the club and it made sense. Now would that have that made sense for every player? Probably not.
BV: When a player goes out on loan, does the club stay in contact with the player, or is it kind of wait and see, how does it work?
JT: Brain for example is still a LAFC player, I am in touch with him, his representative, and we watch all of his games. If it happens this summer and the right offer comes, be it from Almeria or another team and Brian moves on, we will celebrate that with Brian, if it means he is coming back, well we have a very talented player at our disposal for a very congested fixture schedule for the rest of the season, for us. We are certainly still in touch with Brain, we are supporting him, we hope he does well, we are hopeful things go well for Almeria and we will see where things stand when their season finishes.
BV: So, for now LAFC has their 3 DP’s, only one is on loan, and if that were to change, LAFC is prepared? For now, LAFC expects Brian Rodriguez to return?
JT: I wouldn’t say we are expecting him to return, I would say we are prepared for him to return, I would also say that we are prepared if the right offer or situation were to come, we are prepared for him to move. Those decisions are all made in collaboration with the player and their representative. One thing I will clarify with the MLS rules, we have a DP spot free right now because Brian is on loan, and we could mirror Brian’s loan terms and bring a DP on loan, but if (Brian Rodriguez) returns we couldn’t have 4 DP’s, so right now we have decided, yes, it is technically free, and until we have permanent solution for Brian, we have elected to not use that DP spot with a loan.
BV: What is the work that goes into the academies, USL teams, to bring players up to the first team, what is the LAFC pyramid?
JT: We do have some home grown, some are actually from other teams within the league, for whom we traded for. We have signed three LAFC Academy professionals, which we did last summer, and then we are looking to add more to that group. We actually started our academy two years before the first team started, we started with one group of U-12 team, and as successful as the story of Carlos Vela is, there is one story I am really proud of as an organization and that is, there is a kid (Erik Dueñas) who played in the first ever LAFC game as an eleven year old, who signed as a professional last year as a 16-year-old and he is now a part of the first team. So, we are in an incredibly fertile market in terms of talent here in Los Angeles, we have a fully aligned academy now from U-12 to U-19 team, we have added a layer to that where we control a USL team, the Las Vegas Lights, they all train here, so we are providing more and more opportunities for those players to get on the first team or the USL level with the intent to get to the first team.
BV: If you had a crystal ball what are LAFC's long term goals in 5 to 10 years? Even if you are still there or not there even.
JT: So we are very clear, we don’t separate the sport from the business, we are one club, and I think how that comes together, we have always said, “We want to unite the world’s city through the world’s game”, and that here in Los Angeles it involves success on the field, and I think for us at LAFC we are on a path to doing this. We really want to become a global brand and player in international Football. We have done a lot of innovative things in the business side and we have done things that other MLS teams have not done before on the field. What we are trying to do is become a real impactful player and we do that by winning championships. How do we win the Champions League? We win MLS Cup; how do we win MLS Cup? We continue to identify these talented players sprinkled with the Vela stardust as well, we develop academy players, we sell players, all of these things come together in a way where we really build on this special connection that we have with our city and supporters. We broadcast that out in a global market and become a real player internationally.
Quick questions with John Thorrington
BV: After everything that happened with the European Super League, do you still think it’s feasible that Liga MX and MLS can work together in a special tournament and fans would like the idea?
JT: I don’t have the best model in terms of competition format but am absolutely bullish that more and more competition between MLS and Liga MX is good for both leagues. I think the reason I am saying that is we got a taste of it in the Champions League, pre-Covid when we hosted Leon, it was one of the most memorable nights in our club’s history. When we went to Leon, and we had thousands of fans travel to that game… the level of excitement really felt like UEFA Champions League. For me the level of respect, credibility, and attention LAFC gained from that competition, even though we did not complete the job, and it is a bit bitter for me to even talk about still, against Tigres in the final, the relationships and synergy between the two where we can help build each other’s brands and leagues and competition, and heighten that competition, I think would be great a fantastic thing and I know that there are really smart people working on that idea.
BV: Does MLS success still need to piggyback on the success of the USMNT? Is it still as crucial as it was in 2002 let’s say?
JT: I believe we are all stewards of the game, and how can we grow the game in the United States, and when I think back to the exposure I had to the game and what our academy kids have now, it is polar opposites, access to the game, good coaching. I think what is good for the USNT to grow the game is good for MLS and part of our responsibility with our academy is to develop USNT players.
BV: What’s the reaction when you pitch LAFC to a player and tell them the ownership group is made up of Will Ferrell, Mia Hamm-Garciaparra, Magic Johnson, and so on, does it raise a few eyebrows?
JT: Most people ask the question, and there is a hint of negativity about it like, this is a huge cumbersome group, how does it work? It has been hugely positive… Will Ferrell gets us into conversation that MLS has never been in… Narratives that are really important to the league in terms of growing in its popularity. Am a purist, that is not what builds a league, and you need to do things on the field, but the combination of the two, it could be additive, you think about our ownership group and their relationship with other sports teams, whether that’s the Golden State Warriors or the Los Angeles Dodgers, for me… the cross pollination of ideas be it Data Analytics and cross promotions in ticket sales, pricing strategies, all the way down to how we run a foundation. It’s the access we have to these really smart people, because they are owners and invested… They are willing participants in helping grow LAFC on and off the field.