SAN JOSE —
When Carlos Vela left Spain for LAFC six years ago, he was clear about his goals: he wanted to win an MVP award and a league championship and break the MLS single-season scoring record, not necessarily in that order.
With LAFC’s MLS Cup win last November, he has done all three while adding a pair of Supporters’ Shields along the way. But rather than satisfying him, that success has made Vela ever hungrier heading into a new season next month.
“When you get the trophy, you feel all those positive things, that energy, the enjoyment to win a trophy. [So] you want more, you want to be in that position again,” he said during Tuesday’s MLS Media Day. “We’ll have more tournaments, more chances to win trophies, so we’ll prepare to get more.”
In fact, no MLS team will be chasing more hardware this season than LAFC, which will play in the CONCACAF Champions League as well as the U.S. Open Cup, the inaugural Leagues Cup and the two MLS competitions.
“Last year it was it was a special year. Incredible,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “But that’s last year. This year has its own challenges. Talking about five tournaments in one year, it’s a lot of football. But we have sights on winning some more trophies.
“Whatever competition we’re in, we want to win. And we have a beautiful opportunity in playing these tournaments to add to that list.”
LAFC will begin that chase Feb. 25 when it opens the regular season against the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl. It will open Champions League play March 9 against Alajuelense, a winner of 30 Costa Rican first-division titles, while the first League Cups, a month-long tournament involving all 47 teams from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, starts in late July with LAFC, as the reigning league champion, getting a bye through the group stage.
If LAFC makes it to the final of those three tournaments, plus the U.S. Open Cup, it would play 54 games in about 41 weeks, putting a premium on depth, something John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and co-president, has emphasized this offseason.
Thorrington rebuilt the team last season, adding eight players during the winter and two key pieces — Italian national team captain Giorgio Chiellini and Welsh captain Gareth Bale — in early summer. That paid off with two trophies, so Thorrington has gone back to the same playbook this winter, although this time he’s reloading, not rebuilding.
The 10 players who started at least 20 regular-season games last season are back, and to that core Thorrington has added U.S. World Cup player Aaron Long and Honduran international Denil Maldonado on the back line, 20-year forward Stipe Biuk up front and former Everton keeper Eldin Jakupovic in goal. Gone is midfielder Latif Blessing, who was traded to New England; Bale, who retired; and Ecuadoran World Cup midfielder Jhegson Méndez, who signed with Brazilian club Sao Paulo on Monday.
And Thorrington’s not done. Bale’s retirement on Monday opened a designated-player spot and some space under the MLS salary cap, although with the current makeup of LAFC’s roster, the team could only add a DP who qualified under MLS’ U-22 initiative.
“There’s still quite a few moving parts with inbound, outbound interest that we’re still waiting for to gain absolute clarity,” said Thorrington, who was rewarded with a multiyear contract extension Tuesday. “I do foresee some more movement. I do see some movement. It is well documented that some of our players have garnered quite a bit of interest.”
Chief among those is Ecuadoran World Cup midfielder José Cifuentes, whose agent said he’s received calls from European teams.
LAFC won its first MLS Cup in November, beating Philadelphia on penalty kicks after edging the Union for the Supporters’ Shield on a tiebreaker. And that has put a big target on the team’s back, adding to the challenge of the new season.
“We’ve got to embrace this head on and kind of be honored that teams are really gunning for us,” Acosta said. “We’ve got to prove why we were champions last year and it starts each and every game.
“Obviously we can talk about what we did last year, but this year is a new year. It’s kind of just a reset for everyone.”
That’s something Vela, who will turn 34 in March, said he’s embracing.
“I like the pressure. When you get older, you see your career ending — or close to ending. I want to enjoy every training and every game,” said Vela, who is in the final season on his contract. “My goal is really work hard to win more trophies, because in the end I came to this club to make history. So I want to left the bar really high before I leave.
“If we win a couple of more trophies, it will be [a] better legacy than we’d leave right now.”