On a cool morning at Cal State Los Angeles, old and new faces gathered to begin to piece together the future of LAFC. The team gathered Monday for the first day of preseason training, and throughout the session, every member of the team emphasized the importance of continuing to grow throughout 2019.
“The challenge to get better, to make our football better, to enjoy what goes on every day — I mean, c’mon, man — that is still what we have tried to build as a foundation,” Bradley said during his team’s first meeting before practice. “This year, when I say we’re excited . . . the idea is, ‘Let’s get going.'”
This preseason is different in more ways than Bradley could count. This time last year, the team was unfamiliar and practicing on borrowed turf on UCLA’s campus. There wasn’t much certainty of anything — results, team chemistry, fan support. Banc of California stadium had yet to open. The roster had yet to form a large enough group to play a full 90 minutes. The year ahead was, in short, a bundle of guesswork, reliant on faith in the club leadership and in each other.
That faith paid off. LAFC rumbled to a 16-9-9 rookie season, setting MLS league records as an expansion team and clawing its way to a No. 3 ranking in the Western Conference and a playoff berth. That faith also made the season’s final conclusion — a stunning 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake in the opening round of the MLS playoffs — that much more bitter, an emotion now driving this team through every step leading to the 2019 season.
“Obviously, that game didn’t feel good afterwards,” midfielder Lee Nguyen said. “We were all hungry and anxious to get this next season started right away. We definitely felt that we could’ve gone further than we did, so now we’re back in it to try to right that ship.”
Despite the loss of several fan favorites, such as midfielder Benny Feilhaber, LAFC returns 18 players from its foundational team last year. From the explosive frontline attack of Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi to the stalwart backline of Walker Zimmerman and Tyler Miller, the club forged a concrete future for its team by locking in the core of players that created last season’s dynamic.
The team also invited 11 new players to preseason camp — forwards Ricky Lopez-Espin (Real Salt Lake) and Adrien Perez (Ontario Fury); midfielders Peter-Lee Vassell (Harbour View), Javier Pérez (Univ. of Pittsburgh), Kevin Mendoza (Liberty University), Alejandro Guido (Club Tijuana), Conor O’Brien (Charlotte Independence) and Baggio Husidic (LA Galaxy); defender Lamar Batista (Portland Timbers 2); and goalkeepers Wade Hamilton (LA Galaxy II) and Phillip Ejimadu (Nacional Atlético Clube).
The emphasis of these invitations rested in testing new attacking players, including new acquisitions from offseason trades and the 2019 SuperDraft. With the backline filled out by LAFC veterans, Bradley and his team are challenging the midfield to keep up with a young crop of new hopefuls.
Preseason training also saw the return of Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who notched two goals and five assists last season before injuring his ankle in July. Kaye’s return to the pitch has been long, patient and grueling, but he was out in full action — and high spirits — to start training.
“From a physical standpoint, I’m cleared to play with the team, but obviously I have a high standard for myself,” Kaye said. “You’re not off for six months and then just return in three days and get that back.”
The first week of preseason training was simple — weaving skills and fundamental drills with chemistry-building exercises to see how the team would mesh. With a week before a preseason friendly against Vissel Kobe, a Japanese club, the core of the team is well-adjusted to one another, and the team was focused on smoothly integrating its new players.
The energy was high among the players, who laughed, whooped and joked their way through the opening days of training — and even Bradley was cheerful about the upcoming season.
“It feels good. It’s a great atmosphere right now,” Kaye said. “Everyone is excited to get back out there, and the fact that I was able to share the first moment of the season with the team after what happened with my injury, . . . it’s just a good moment.”