Monday, April 15 2024
LAFC's Mario González and the Crew's Rudy Camacho leap up and try to head the ball

LAFC’s 2023 season ended in rain, cold and disappointment at 6:07 p.m. Eastern time Saturday evening, which means its preparations for 2024 started at about the same time the Columbus Crew’s victory celebration did.

Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Crew in the MLS Cup final, which made first-year Columbus coach Wilfried Nancy the first Black manager to win the league title, brought the longest season in league history to an end while beginning the shortest offseason in franchise history. LAFC endured a 10-month, 53-game slog through four countries and two continents this year, covering more than 63,000 miles.

No team had ever attempted anything close to that.

Along the way the reigning MLS champion competed for six trophies, winning none. It played in three tournament finals — CONCACAF Champions League, Campeones Cup and MLS Cup — and lost all three.

Read more: LAFC’s bid for MLS Cup history undone by disastrous stretch in loss to Columbus

No other team had ever done that, either.

And it will start all over again soon, with MLS teams expected to open their training camps in mid-January and their seasons in late February. MLB and NBA teams had 3½-month offseasons; the NFL five months. LAFC gets less than five weeks.

John Thorrington, the team’s general manager, gets a lot less than that. He had to inform the league office Sunday which players will have their contract options exercised. The MLS trade window opens Monday, free-agent negotiations begin Wednesday and the re-entry process for out-of-contract players not eligible for free agency starts Thursday.

“That work has been going on,” Thorrington said. “Most of those decisions are fairly obvious and will be made. But the reality of the offseason, roster moves and all of that, that’s a very limited period of time. We always were working on that in the background, and we will be prepared for what comes this offseason.”

LAFC players celebrate on the field.LAFC players celebrate on the field.

An offseason that will not only be the shortest in LAFC history but also among the busiest since contracts expired Saturday on more than a dozen players, including seven who started in the MLS Cup final. Some of those — midfielder Ilie Sánchez and defender Jesús Murillo — have options that could be triggered. Others — captain Carlos Vela, goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and defenders Diego Palacios and Giorgio Chiellini — do not.

And then there’s Denis Bouanga, the league’s Golden Boot winner with 20 regular-season goals. Although his contract runs through 2025, on Saturday he talked about his time with LAFC in the past tense and said a return to Europe could be in the works.

“I am really happy to have played for a year and a half here, to get to know MLS,” he told reporters in French. “LAFC is a great institution, it’s been really good. But yeah, it’s a possibility I [could] return to Europe. I let the club and my agents figure all of that stuff out.

“I’m very honored to have worn this jersey and to have played for this institution here.”

Read more: Hernández: Carlos Vela wants to stay with LAFC, but antiquated MLS rules might force him out

That leaves Thorrington with a lot of decisions to make and little time in which to make them.

Vela, the MLS single-season scoring leader and a former MVP, likely presents the toughest call. The only player remaining from LAFC’s inaugural season in 2018, Vela is the franchise record-holder in several categories, including goals and assists. But he’ll be 35 next season and while he and Sánchez were the only players to appear in all 39 of the team’s MLS games this year, Vela was scoreless in the last 15, the longest goal drought of his LAFC career.

“Sunday it says my contract is free. That’s the only thing I know because it’s in the paper,” Vela said. “Everybody knows how happy I am in L.A., how happy I am in this game. But it’s a job, it’s a business. We will talk and see if something works. If it doesn’t, everybody will be [on] his way.

“When one door closes another one opens. So it’s not the end of the world.”

LAFC players cheer after the MLS Western Conference finalLAFC players cheer after the MLS Western Conference final

If Vela does come back, it will likely be for far less than the $4.4 million in guaranteed salary he got this season. If he doesn’t come back, that would open at least two designated player spots for Thorrington — three if Bouanga also leaves.

That will also open up space in a payroll which, at $20.85 million, was fourth-largest in the league in 2023. And Thorrington could use the extra money since Crepeau, 29, ($350,000) and Palacios, 24, ($654,000), who are eligible for free agency, will need substantial raises to come back.

LAFC would clearly prefer to reload rather than rebuild because there were times this season when it was so good, it seemed all but unbeatable.

“It’s probably the best team in our league’s history,” Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin said last spring.

Read more: ‘He understands the moment.’ How Steve Cherundolo led LAFC back to the MLS Cup final

But there were other times, like in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, when its weaknesses were so exposed LAFC wasn’t even the best of the two teams on the field. A schedule that forced the team to play a game every five days for 10 months undoubtedly had something to do with that, which is why the 39-year-old Chiellini, the second-oldest man to play in an MLS Cup final, was speaking for many of his teammates when he said it’s too early to think about next season, even if it is right around the corner.

“It could be my last game,” he said. “Give me a couple of days.”

Thorrington and LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo don’t have that luxury, of course. For them, the preparations for next year have already begun.

“If John lets me, I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks,” Cherundolo joked through the pain Saturday. “I’m not sure that’s going to happen. He’ll call me Monday, I’m sure of that.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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