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LAFC’s young players lead way during inaugural MLS season

LOS ANGELES — As a club and a culture, there are many ways to describe Los Angeles FC. On the field, it’s dynamic, aggressive, crafty. In the stands, it’s loud, passionate, devoted. If you’re an LA Galaxy fan, you might say annoying or frustrating.

But the best word to sum up this LAFC team its inaugural season is more simple — young.

The club itself is young, still working to weave its way into the rich framework of Los Angeles sports, still building its fanbase and its culture from the ground up. Its traditions are new, its chants still fresh. And most importantly, the roster of the team itself is packed with youth, a fact highlighted last week when Major League Soccer unveiled its annual “22 under 22” list.

LAFC starred on the list, boasting four players total. Diego Rossi, 20, headlined at No. 3 overall. He and the others chosen — No. 11 Latif Blessing, No. 13 Andre Horta and No. 16 Eduard Atuesta  — are mainstays of the club, young stars who already have made waves for the black and gold.

Eighteen of the team’s goals this season have been scored by a player younger than 22, adding up to more than 30 percent of the team’s total offensive production its inaugural year. Rossi, in particular, has excelled. He set an MLS record for fastest goal scored by an MLS expansion team in its first game when he notched the first goal in LAFC history 11 minutes into the club’s debut match the day before his 20th birthday. He’s now third overall on the team in goals and second in assists.

 

The fresh energy and outlook LAFC’s young talent can bring fuels the team’s furious attacking mentality and boosts its creativity.

“From the start, we talked about young talent,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said. “We felt that in order to build our club and have attacking ideas, there were young players that we felt could give us something. We’re excited that some of the young players have played such big roles for us this season. We keep pushing them every day because the talent that all four possess can get to an even higher level.”

The tactic of snatching promising young players and reaping the benefits of their prime is a well-documented technique in soccer, a Moneyball-esque approach that was lauded by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their best-seller Soccernomics. The development of young players has been a forefront focus of LAFC since its inception.

After securing Carlos Vela, 29, as its cornerstone player, many of the early LAFC acquisitions were younger, a group of athletes well known by committed fans as the future of their respective national teams, but still several years off bonafide star status. Even Vela is relatively young, but captaining a team of men in their mid-20s, he can come across as a grizzled veteran.

Apr 21, 2018; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) reacts with teammates Benny Feilhaber (33), Diego Rossi (9) and Latif Blessing (7) after scoring a goal on a penalty kick at Stade Saputo. ( Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Acquiring young talent is one thing; coaching it is a completely different game. That’s where Bradley came in, focusing early on slowly building schemes that targeted his young players and gave them room to experiment and grow. Building a team chemistry allowed for a looser approach to the attack. This in turn helped build connections between young players, such as Rossi, and older players, such as Vela, who have since formed a dangerous dynamic on the attack.

“[It was] one of the things we identified in him very early,” LAFC general manager John Thorrington said of Bradley. “One of the things which made him the right coach for us, is that we knew he would get the most out of those established veterans, but could also really help develop these players in the next step and phases of their career, which we are seeing this year.”

Apr 4, 2018; Los Angeles, CA; LAFC general manager and executive vice president of soccer operations John Thorrington at the grand opening of the AFC Performance Center on the campus of Cal State LA. The 30,000 square foot and $30 million facility will serve as home of the LAFC players, staff, coaches and academy. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Thorrington has worked to build academies that will help feed this youthful focus from the ground up, expanding his teams as they grow and hosting tournaments to give the players tough competition. The youth academies have been around for three years now, longer than the actual LAFC professional squad, and their quiet victories bode well for the future of the club.

Already, an LAFC academy team became the first American side to win the U-13 Concacaf Champions League, and Top Drawer Soccer considers the U-13 and U-14 teams as the best in their age group.

And when the academy teams do well, the club makes sure to document and celebrate the victory, bringing the young players out to games to celebrate. The emphasis is clear — the success of these players when they are 13 and 14 may directly translate into professional success in eight or nine years.

“It’s incredibly important to have a balance between experience and youth,” LAFC assistant general manager Will Kuntz said. “There is no substitute for fresh, young, exciting legs. It’s important for us to know we have players to build around for the future as well.”

 

Ultimately, this focus reflects the greater goal of the LAFC expansion — to build a team that will last a lifetime, not just a handful of successful seasons. Although LAFC is already seeing success, qualifying for the playoffs its inaugural season, that success is built on young players who are still growing and reaching their peak.

“All of those players have an incredibly bright future in the game,” Thorrington said. “The talent is there, and I think they’re being recognized in part because of what they’ve already done, but in large part due to their potential. If they keep their heads down and work, it will be really exciting to see all of the potential that they have fulfilled.”

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