LAFC begin roster reload: “There’s still quite a few moving parts” | MLSSoccer.com
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
After winning the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double in 2022, LAFC have stayed on center stage to start 2023 by preparing for their title defense.
Last week, the club signed US men’s national team center back Aaron Long in free agency, having already added highly-rated Croatian youth international winter Stipe Biuk and Honduran international center back Denil Maldonado. On Monday a fourth player was announced: veteran goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic.
Then the biggest news, globally speaking, arrived just as the club gathered for preseason: legendary winger Gareth Bale announced his retirement from soccer, his last professional club goal coming as a dramatic 128th-minute equalizer in MLS Cup 2022. That towering header sent the legendary game at Banc of California Stadium into penalty kicks.
On Monday, LAFC formally unveiled the four new signings alongside co-president and general manager John Thorrington.
“In different ways, these four new additions represent what we are at LAFC,” Thorrington told media. “We have a young, highly sought-after European prospect in Stipe. We have a player who represented the US in Qatar and has been a mainstay in our league [in Long]. In Denil, we have another player with significant international experience in Honduras, and in Eldin we have a veteran goalkeeper who has played many years in Europe at very high levels.”
“There’s still quite a few moving parts, inbound and outbound interest,” Thorrington said. “We’re waiting for everything to happen to gain absolute clarity and what will be possible. I do foresee some more movement. Today we saw the first round of additions. I don’t think we’ll be announcing another four players, but I do see some movement.”
As recently as last week, LAFC were preparing for Bale to return for the 2023 campaign. But on Sunday, Thorrington was informed by Bale and his agent of his impending retirement.
“We were planning on having Gareth in for his intake physical with the rest of our players. … I received a call yesterday from his agent and Gareth,” Thorrington said. “I have the utmost respect for Gareth. … It did surprise us in one sense, but once they explained where he was mentally and physically, we completely understood. We appreciate their forthrightness and we wish Gareth nothing but the best.”
Bale, 33, joined LAFC last June after leaving Real Madrid. The winger rose to stardom with Tottenham Hotspur before moving to the Spanish capital, setting a then-world-record transfer fee.
He won five UEFA Champions Leagues and three LaLigas in Spain. In his half-season with LAFC, Bale won the Shield and MLS Cup. A seemingly endless list of individual accolades trailed him everywhere he went, adding up to 21 trophies during an 18-year career.
“When you talk about careers – we released a statement that listed them, half of the article was what he has won,” Thorrington said. “That’s habitual. I can’t think of many careers like this where he was a habitual winner.”
Gareth Bale! LAFC star’s MLS Cup goal heard around the world
Bale didn’t play as regularly as either party hoped when originally signing, making just 13 appearances (two starts) due to injury. He came off the bench in the MLS Cup final – his lone playoff appearance – to score that historic game-tying goal against the Philadelphia Union.
“In the end, [the signing] worked,” Thorrington said. “I mean, we have an MLS Cup because of everybody, but without him, we don’t have MLS Cup.”
Bale then represented Wales at the FIFA World Cup, leading his nation to the sport’s ultimate tournament after a 64-year drought. Wales didn’t advance from Group B, but his late penalty kick held the USMNT to an opening 1-1 draw.
The move opens further salary cap space and officially preserves the Black & Gold’s final open DP spot. Bale’s contract was through the summer and if LAFC picked up his contract option, he would have become a DP.
LAFC went out and signed a consensus top-three free agent on the MLS market, winning the sweepstakes to sign USMNT center back Long.
Long, 30, is a former MLS Defender of the Year and stalwart with the New York Red Bulls, leading the team to the 2018 Supporters’ Shield. He ultimately chose LAFC to return to his home of Southern California and hopefully challenge for more trophies.
“There were inquiries around the league, there were inquiries abroad,” Long said. “Coming to LA, coming home, playing in front of my family and friends is a dream for me. And what better club to do it than LAFC?”
“The quality of the players here is amazing, that’s something I can see very early on,” Long said. “The aspirations to win trophies [is clear], our ability to win trophies with the talent we have.”
Maldonado, 24, has made 21 appearances for Honduras, including playing in nine 2022 World Cup Qualifying matches and appearing in three games at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. He won three titles with CD Motagua as well, joining on loan with a purchase option.
Competition for minutes is something Long and Maldonado both embrace.
“The answer is to work hard,” Maldonado said through a translator. “Everybody knows how strong the defense is in this team, so it’s about working hard for an opportunity. I’ll be ready for whatever the coach needs.”
At opposite ends of the career spectrum, LAFC’s first flurry of new additions includes 20-year-old Biuk and 38-year-old Jakupovic.
Biuk was signed for a transfer fee in the region of $5.5 million, a significant outlay, but a bit less than anticipated when Biuk was being linked with some of Europe’s biggest teams.
“I’m very happy to be here at this great club,” Biuk said. “I’m very excited to train with all these players. I can’t wait to play.”
Biuk was named to the 40-man shortlist for UEFA’s Golden Boy award in 2022. He already made 66 first-team appearances for Split, a club well respected for its youth development. LAFC plan to integrate the dynamic winger into the team and give him plenty of chances to develop. He occupies a U22 Initiative spot.
While the veteran goalkeeper has mostly been a backup since 2016-17 (when he made 22 Premier League appearances with Hull City), he trained at the highest level with Leicester City and Everton.
“As a goalkeeper, you need competition,” Jakupovic said. “Yes, maybe the last few years I haven’t played as much as I did before, but I learned a lot. I trained under very good coaches, like Brenden Rodgers and Frank Lampard. I trained with Kasper Schmeichel, Jordan Pickford. I have experience that I can give to the group, to the goalkeepers. The main thing is to push each other.”
Additionally, LAFC remain in talks with center back Eddie Segura. LAFC hope the Colombian defender, who’s out of contract and currently injured, can stay after initially joining the club in 2019.
“We’re in very positive talks with Eddie and his representation,” Thorrington said. “… Eddie is going to be injured long-term, but that does not affect our commitment to Eddie. We’re in positive talks to make sure Eddie remains part of LAFC.”
The offseason work isn’t about to slow down for LAFC, even after a handful of signings and with preseason now underway.
It’s widely expected Ecuador international midfielder Jose Cifuentes will depart in a lucrative transfer abroad, while Ecuador international left back Diego Palacios is also thought to have interest from Europe. The likes of defender Sebastien Ibeagha (free agency to FC Dallas) and midfielder Latif Blessing (trade to New England Revolution) have already left.
“It’s well documented some of our players have garnered interest, but they’re here until they’re not,” Thorrington said. “… Our scouting/data department are planning for those possible moves and making contingency plans in the event we move another player.”
Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga are the club’s two senior DPs, with the third spot remaining open. Thorrington was non-committal over whether or not LAFC will use that spot in the interim. With all three U22 Initiative slots currently filled, the club could only sign a Young DP or they could use the slot on a senior player who makes below the max-TAM threshold.
While they won’t rush into any decision, LAFC aims to have their full squad ready at the beginning of the season to make another run at the Concacaf Champions League. They made the 2020 final before losing to Liga MX’s Tigres. This year, they have a Round of 16 home-and-away series against Costa Rica’s Alajuelense that begins March 9.
“This season is different because we want to be heading into Champions League with as competitive a roster as possible,” Thorrington said. “We feel really good if we can maintain this group we have, plus a few reinforcements, I think we’ll be in a great position to compete on multiple fronts.”