In more ways than one, 2021 did not go according to plan for LAFC.
Carlos Vela’s season was lost to injury, 2020 MLS Golden Boot Winner Diego Rossi left in midseason for Turkey and Steve Cherundolo has replaced Bob Bradley as the second head coach in club history.
Even with a clear step back in year four of existence, LAFC remains committed to getting back to the playoffs this season and establishing themselves as the talk of the town in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we’re in the middle of a rebuild,” said head coach Steve Cherundolo in his introductory press conference.
“We want to build on what is already great about this club and continue our attacking style of play.”
Cherundolo 43, is a natural successor to Bob Bradley who joined Toronto FC in the offseason, with Cherundolo coaching LAFC’s USL affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights last season, and playing under Bradley during his time as a member of the U.S. men’s national team.
In terms of the roster Cherundolo inherits, the Black and Gold are still led by 32-year-old Carlos Vela, but which Carlos Vela shows up this season remains to be seen.
When healthy, Vela is an MVP candidate who has shown the ability to propel LAFC to one of the top teams in the league, though his last two seasons have been marred by injuries.
“This preseason, Carlos has worked incredibly hard on his own health and fitness,” said Cherundolo. “He really wants to get back on the field and contribute regularly.”
Just as LAFC looked to be moving towards a playoff spot last year, the Mexican playmaker was sidelined for 12 of the final 15 matches of the regular season and LAFC missed out on the postseason for the first time in team history.
“It’s very difficult to say at what level in his career to compare him to, but we will see an energetic, lethal, and contributing this Carlos Vela season.”
Even with the departure of Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez returned from his loan spell in Spain and showed flashes of the quality he displays with the Uruguayan national team and Cristian Arango filled a massive hole at striker, bagging 14 goals in 15 matches after joining from Millionaros midseason.
A healthy Vela raises the ceiling of LAFC, but how the midfield and defense come together for LAFC will be the difference between a playoff team and an MLS Cup contender in year one under Steve Cherundolo.
Here is a closer look at Los Angeles FC heading into the 2022 MLS season:
2022 LAFC Season Preview
2021 Finish: 9th in the West (12-13-9, 45 points)
Key Acquisitions: Kellyn Acosta, Maxime Crepeau, Ryan Hollingshead, Franco Escobar, Doneil Henry
Key Losses: Diego Rossi, Corey Baird, Eduard Atuesta, Tristan Blackmon, Marco Farfan
Newcomer to Watch: Maxime Crepeau
It was a tough choice to pick between Kellyn Acosta or Maxime Crepeau, but given LAFC’s struggles between the posts since their introduction into the league, Crepeau gets the slight edge.
LAFC opted for a musical chairs approach at goalie last season with Pablo Sisniega starting the season as the number one, but he was sent to the bench in favor of 21-year-old Tomas Romero and by the end of the season, Romero became the number two option with Jamaal Blackman becoming the starter.
Enter Maxime Crepeau.
Last season Crepeau was a pivotal member of the Whitecaps’ second-half surge into the playoffs and has established himself as an above-average goalie in MLS, earning 14 caps for the Canadian National Team in the process.
He was expected to stay in Vancouver and sign a new contract with the Caps, but negotiations stalled and he requested a trade to the benefit of LAFC. It ended up costing LAFC $1 million in General Allocation money spread over three seasons and a 2025 first-round draft pick, but locking down the goalie position is a massive boost to the LAFC defense.
“I will be 28 in May and so my goal is to is to be one of the guys that can bring the club to the playoffs and fight for silver wear every single year,” said Crepeau.
Pressure is on: Brian Rodriguez
For the second year in a row, the pressure is on Brian Rodriguez to validate his Young Designated Player status and become one of the best attackers in MLS.
After a lackluster 2019-2020 season, it seemed like Rodriguez was on his way out of Los Angeles via a loan to UD Almeria of Spain’s LaLiga 2 that had an obligation to purchase if Almeria achieved promotion, but they came up short in the relegation playoffs.
Instead, Rodriguez returned to LAFC for the second half of the season, and like years prior showed moments of true class, but also disappeared for long stretches of play.
In the final preseason tune-up for the Black and Gold, Rodriguez scored a brace in a 6-1 win over the New York Red Bulls so there is hope this year is the year he finally steps up.
In terms of turnover, the front three remains unchanged from the second half of the season, though, for a team that maintains they are not in a rebuild, LAFC did their fair share of retooling by acquiring numerous proven MLS players to improve their squad.
The aforementioned Maxime Crepeau headlines a busy offseason, but the trade for Kellyn Acosta from the Colorado Rapids for up to 1.5 million dollars in General Allocation Money fills a big hole left by the departure of star defensive midfielder Eduard Atuesta to Palmeiras.
“Kellyn is a very versatile player,” “We see him in the middle of the park, whether it’s at times a six or an eight, or even further up the field, I think you’ll see a lot of multiple positions from him,” said Cherundolo.
Acosta’s versatility in the midfield has been on display with the Rapids and in 48 caps with the U.S. Men’s National Team, where he has featured as a defensive midfielder, central midfielder, and even as a fill-in left back.
“I’m really excited to kind of link up with with with Carlos, Brian and Chico,” said Acosta.
“I want to give everything I have for the badge and help my teammates, any way possible in order to achieve the ultimate goal of winning an MLS Cup.”
Outside of Acosta, LAFC have also added Ille Sanchez and Ismael Tjouri-Shradi to provide additional cover in the midfield behind Acosta, Cifuentes, and Blessing who project to start in a midfield three.
Sanchez joins via free agency from Sporting KC where he showed an ability to play progressive passes and is able to play as a defensive midfielder or center-back with ease. Tjouri-Shadi is another flexible piece that can be a creator in the midfield or out wide, having been acquired for 400,000 in General Allocation Money from Charlotte FC.
In terms of other additions, Ryan Hollingshead, Doneil Henry, and Pablo Escobar have all been added to boost a leaky defense from last season that struggled after Eddie Segura tore his ACL in August.
“At his current pace he is a little ahead of schedule, but we are going to give Eddie as much time as he needs,” said Cherundolo on Segura’s return.
With Segura sidelined, Mamadou “Mbacke” Fall is a player who is in line for more minutes after excelling under Cherundolo with the Lights, he integrated quickly with the LAFC first team and played important minutes in the second half of the season.
The signing of Henry on a free transfer also gives Cherundolo four legit center-back options to choose from when Segura returns from injury.
Henry 28, is a well-traveled veteran defender, spending time with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC in MLS while having played for clubs in England, Cyprus, and Demark prior to joining LAFC.
At the international level, he has been capped 42 times by the Canadian National team and is the second member of the Canadian National team acquired by LAFC this offseason, joining Maxime Crepeau.
“Doneil is a veteran and athletic defender who brings incredible international and MLS experience to our club,” said Club President John Thorrington.
At outside back, Tristan Blackmon was selected in the expansion draft by Charlotte and then traded to the Whitecaps, but Kim Moon-Hwan is poised for a step forward in year two and is battling former Atlanta United right-back, Franco Escobar, for the starting spot.
Escobar like seemingly every other player acquired this offseason can play more than one position and is a depth option at center-back.
On the opposite flank, Ryan Hollingshead was brought from FC Dallas in exchange for Marco Farfan, though Ecuadorian international Diego Palacios is the established starter at the position.
It is worth noting that Palacios is out of contract in December of 2023 and may want to return to Europe ahead of a World Cup year and Hollingshead, 30 is a proven MLS starter in his own right but is not the same level of the defender as Palacios.
Even with the departure of Eduard Atuesta, the Black and Gold have built a competitive roster and addressed their biggest weakness at goalkeeper with the acquisition of Crepeau.
At Vela’s age, the pressure is on Cherundolo to get the most out of his star man and return LAFC to the playoffs.
Once the Diego Rossi transfer becomes permanent, there is an open Designated Player spot open for another difference-maker to come in and push the Black and Gold into title contention.
“Do we want to win every game we put on our jersey? Yes, of course,” said Cherundolo. “But to put all this pressure on your shoulders as a group and as a coach and be able to perform at your highest every day and every game is probably not realistic, but I don’t mind pressure.”
Goalkeepers: Maxime Crepeau, Tomas Romero, John McCarthy
Defenders: Diego Palacios, Ryan Hollingshead, Doneil Henry, Eddie Segura, Mamadou Fall, Franco Escobar, Jesus Murillo, Kim Moon-Hwan, Sebastien Ibeagha, Mohammed Traore, Antonio Leone, Julian Gaines
Midfielders: Latif Blessing, Kellyn Acosta, Jose Cifuentes, Ilie Sanchez, Francisco Ginella, Erik Duenas
Forwards: Carlos Vela, Cristian Arango, Brian Rodriguez, Danny Musovski, Cal Jennings, Ismael Tjouri-Shradi, Christian Torres, Kwadwo Opuku