Tough roster decisions await LAFC as it sorts through player contracts

The eventual MLS Cup champion LAFC celebrates after their victory over Austin FC in the Western Conference final October 30 at Banc of California Stadium. (John McCoy/Associated Press)

John Thorrington hadn’t even finished washing the champagne out of his hair after celebrating last Saturday’s MLS Cup victory before the LAFC general manager was forced to focus on next season.

“We’re going to let this year’s accomplishments sink in, but that doesn’t make us any less ambitious,” said Thorrington, who built LAFC’s title-winning team. “In fact, the feeling of winning motivates us to do our best to repeat.”

It won’t be easy in a league where no team has won back-to-back titles in over a decade. But the first step towards that goal begins on Monday when Thorrington must decide which players will receive contract offers for next season and which players will have their contract options denied.

“I would like to keep this whole team together,” he said. “But with our constraints and our regulations, keeping the whole group and adding more is impossible. So we have to identify what we need and sometimes surgery is needed. Hopefully it’s marginal and nothing too intrusive. But time will tell.”

MLS has a salary cap and a number of other roster rules designed to induce parity. For general managers like Thorrington, the rules induce frustration and anxiety.

At least a dozen LAFC players saw their contracts expire after the MLS Cup final, although many of them had club options. Captain Carlos Vela, midfielder Ilie Sánchez and defender Giorgio Chiellini are all said to have signed until next season while winger Gareth Bale is signed until spring. These four deals will cost LAFC more than $5 million. The team also owes an additional $3.4 million in base salaries to designated players Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello.

National team midfielder Kellyn Acosta ($1.1 million) and goaltender Maxime Crepeau ($275,000) are among those with contract options that Thorrington said he plans to take on. ‘exercise.

“For now, that’s the plan,” Thorrington said of Acosta. “Things can change, but he is under contract for next season.”

Thorrington said Crepeau, who left the field on a trolley after breaking his leg late in the MLS Cup final, underwent successful surgery but is expected to be out for at least the first few months of the season 2023.

Defender Ryan Hollingshead, who has had one career season, can enter free agency on Wednesday, and Sebastian Mendez, Franco Escobar and Sebastien Ibeagha are also reportedly out of contract. It will be difficult for Thorrington to sustain the team with a payroll approaching the $19 million spent by LAFC last season.

“It’s impossible to keep everyone and sometimes even hard to keep the core,” Thorrington said. “What I would say works to our advantage is that I think our players love playing here. And I think they know we’re treating them as best we can.

“But when we’ve kind of finished the celebrations and have those conversations, sometimes they’re difficult.”

Among those who could leave are midfielders José Cifuentes and Latif Blessing. Cifuentes, who is going to the World Cup with Ecuador, is still under contract, but LAFC and Cifuentes, 23, have started exploring transfer offers.

“There is significant interest from Europe in Cifu,” Thorrington said. “And as we have done regularly in the past, we are working closely with the agent and the player and interested clubs to see if there is the right solution for LAFC and for Cifu.”

LAFC has a contract option on Blessing, 25, a member of the original roster in 2018, but he has played 1,332 career minutes this season and says he misses his friends and family in Ghana.

In addition to Monday’s deadline for announcing contract decisions and the start of free agency on Wednesday, the back-to-school draft for players who are out of contract but not eligible for free agency will begin Thursday. LAFC could be active in much of that given the need for depth due to how many games it could play next year.

In addition to MLS’s 34-game regular season, which opens Feb. 25 against the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, LAFC will play in the CONCACAF Champions League starting in March, the US Open Cup and the Coupe month-long leagues in mid-summer. This could force the team to play up to 57 games in less than 10 months if they return to the MLS Cup final.

But while Thorrington’s job description forces him to look to the future, he said he’s not quite ready to give up last week’s MLS Cup win just yet.

“The first MLS Cup, I think, was a bit like a monkey on our backs,” he said. “We didn’t shy away from our desire to win the MLS Cup, so to offer this to our supporters and only the players and staff for all that they poured into it, not just this year but for five years, was right. an incredible, incredible moment.”

Now the challenge becomes to do it again.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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