Why the South Bay Figures Prominently in LAFC’s Creation and Early Success
Strike while it’s hot.
- Written byTanya Monaghan
In the world of sports, Los Angeles offers a crowded market. Home to two baseball teams, two basketball teams and now two football teams, the second largest city in the nation claims no shortage of passionate athletic allegiances.
Despite a competitive field of superstar teams, a new kid on the block managed to break through … and quickly. This year the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) became the first expansion team ever to pull to the top of the league in such a short time, all while capturing the hearts of Angelenos with a raucous fan base and a jumping, state-of-the-art stadium experience.
“Bringing that diversity together for the love of the game is incredible, and it certainly is a huge talking point about what we are as a club.”
Thanks to World Cup fever and growing national interest, Los Angeles soccer has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years. Our city was home to two rival soccer clubs: the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA. Chivas folded in 2014, opening a bid for an expansion team and the creation of the LAFC, as well as a cutting-edge stadium in the heart of the city.
The club’s ownership reflects an impressive list of people with success in numerous fields. This includes former professional athletes and South Bay residents Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciaparra. Also part of this group are basketball legend Magic Johnson, celebrities like Will Ferrell and Tony Robbins, and heavy-hitting businessmen Larry Berg, Peter Guber, Henry Nguyen and Tom Penn rounding out a powerhouse of skill, financial muscle, influence and acumen.
For the crucial role of executive vice president of soccer operations and general manager, the group looked to a South Bay native to take the charge. John Thorrington’s path to becoming one of the youngest GMs across Major League Soccer (MLS) is unique in itself.
His pro career started when he was recruited at age 17 while attending high school in Palos Verdes to play for Manchester United in England. At that time this was almost unheard of for an American player. John also faced the difficult decision of turning down a scholarship at Stanford and fulfilling his dream of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
In the end he just couldn’t resist playing for United, so John left the U.S. before his senior year in high school to play as a youth player in the English Premier League. Keeping a promise made to his parents, he completed his undergraduate degree while playing in the U.K.
In addition to Manchester United, John played for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany and Huddersfield, another English club. John also represented the United States at U20, U23 and senior national team levels, where he played for current LAFC coach Bob Bradley.
In 2005 John returned from Europe to play for the Chicago Fire in MLS. He played six seasons in Chicago, also earning his MBA from prestigious Northwestern University. In 2010 John played for the then-expansion Vancouver Whitecaps, and he finally moved on to D.C. United, where he played until his retirement.
In 2015, after John decided to hang up his boots as a professional player, fate intervened when a business school colleague introduced him to Henry Nguyen, one of LAFC’s owners. At the time John was working as an executive at the Players Association and about to graduate from business school. Several conversations later, the stars aligned and John came on board as the general manager of LAFC in 2016—two years prior to the expansion season in 2018.
“We sought to create and build a team that our city looks at and feels represents them. It’s diverse, it’s forward-thinking, it’s beautiful to watch, it’s dynamic, it’s got grit. It’s L.A.”
When John had left the U.S. to pursue his ambitions as a player in Europe, MLS was still in its infancy. John’s goal in his new role with LAFC was to help create a club so great that his 17-year-old self would choose to stay. This aligned perfectly with the ambitions of the owners and is realized in the amazing work LAFC does at the youth level—developing young players and giving them real opportunities and pathways for professional level advancement here at home.
“We are at this inflection point now with soccer in L.A. and in the States,” John says. “Our ambition is to be a global brand and global club, and that is what excited me most about this opportunity. As prideful as I am about Los Angeles, if you would have said to me five years ago that we would have this amazing stadium and environment in Downtown L.A. filled with the passion we see on the field, in the stands and in the community, I would never have believed you. We are seeing our dreams realized more and more. As part of the LAFC family and U.S. soccer more generally, I’m motivated every day to help be a driver of the fantastic growth we’re seeing.”
With a large contingency of the organization living in the South Bay, LAFC also integrates deeply with the community here. In addition to John, LAFC head coach Bob Bradley, three assistant coaches, star player Lee Nguyen, the academy director, and president/owner Tom Penn call the South Bay home. John attributes much of LAFC’s success to word-of-mouth evangelization, so it’s especially gratifying for him to see the club plant strong roots in the South Bay.
The branding and ethos of the club has been crucial to its massive appeal. The colors black and gold represent the glamour of Hollywood, the shield represents the crest and seal of the city, and the wing symbolizes speed, power and mobility. In the words of Mayor Garcetti, “This city is strong because the people of Los Angeles are strong … there’s no mascot. This is Los Angeles. We are Los Angeles. In the heart of this town, each one of these men and women are stretching their wings to say this is the best soccer capital in America.”
LAFC’s connection with its fans is much deeper than it is wide. “When we founded this club, we faced a unique challenge. We were starting from scratch. No players, no stadium, no team name, nothing,” explains Tom. “But we had a vision. We challenged ourselves to be a unifier in Los Angeles during splintered times. We decided on a bold organizational mission: to unite the world’s city through the world’s game.”
LAFC supporters were enlisted in the building of the club from the start. Their motto, “Street by street, block by block, one by one,” highlights the grassroots effort launched to bring the team into the fold. They sold out of season tickets before even signing a player or coach.
“We sought to create and build a team that our city looks at and feels represents them,” shares John. “It’s diverse, it’s forward-thinking, it’s beautiful to watch, it’s dynamic, it’s got grit. It’s L.A.”
The 3252 is the Independent Supporters Union for the LAFC, encompassing affiliate supporter groups and independent supporters. The 3252 demonstrates that fiercely loyal and passionate fan base that John mentioned. The number 3252 refers to the members in the standing-only section of the stadium. The group came together long before LAFC had a team in place and played an integral part in the design of their experience. They help create an electric environment at every game.
But LAFC’s fan base isn’t just from Los Angeles. Attendees are from all over Southern California, all walks of life, young and old, men and women. John adds, “Bringing that diversity together for the love of the game is incredible, and it certainly is a huge talking point about what we are as a club. The fans are challenging the players to continue to deliver and entertain, and it’s this symbiotic relationship that is really unique.”
The state-of-the-art Banc of California Stadium was built on the site of the L.A. Sports Arena in Downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. If you’ve caught sight of it from the 110, you know it’s a sight to behold. The concept imagined a cathedral of soccer in the center of Los Angeles, “future-proofed” with cutting-edge technology.
Adjacent to the stadium, The Fields LA offers a stylized urban culinary experience featuring award-winning local chefs and restaurants. Upstairs you can find Free Play, where Chef Tim Hollingsworth is bringing nostalgic American classics and craft cocktails to the heart of Exposition Park. You can watch a game on TV or play retro arcade games. Above it all there’s a stunning rooftop event terrace that offers sweeping views of the downtown skyline.
But the real highlight of the Banc of California Stadium experience is the soccer, and so far it really couldn’t be going much better. After finishing third in the Western Conference in their first season last year, LAFC has already won both the Western Conference and the Supporters’ Shield—the trophy for the team with the best overall record in the league during the 34-game season.
LAFC has officially been stamped the best team in MLS history. Their captain, Carlos Vela, became the league’s greatest scorer, holding the record for most goals in a season. Their on-field success is the culmination of many years of hard work and togetherness, but it is still incredible given that it is only their second season ever.
“You don’t get success from just one thing,” says John. “We have an amazing group of people in this soccer operation—from head coach Bob Bradley and his technical staff right through to our chefs. We joke that we rush to work every day, and that feeling transmits through to our players.”
From the start, John knew one of the most important decisions they would make was whom to hire as their head coach. His first choice was Bob Bradley. John knew Bob and his coaching style quite well from playing for him.
“When we were thinking about what our team would look like and how we wanted to play, he made most sense for us,” John says. “Aside from Bob’s success as a coach, he knew MLS, he knew international football, he coached at World Cups. He has done so much and had success internationally, but he also knew the domestic league and the domestic player.”
Bob was hired in the summer of 2017, and they had only six months together to build a team. Their first order of business was to find a signature player. They started with Carlos Vela and built the roster around him. Vela has done more than prove his value to this team with the best season in league history. They utilized every mechanism available to build the rest of the roster, acquiring influential players from drafts, as free agents, from USL and MLS, and from domestic and international pools.
But John believes the best is still yet to come, particularly when it comes to developing local talent through their Academy program. “We are behind the curve historically when comparing ourselves to soccer in Europe. In part, that is down to player development,” he says. “We have an incredible talent base to choose from here in L.A., but we also have the challenge of competing with all the other sports. I can’t help but think that with the rise in popularity of MLS and of the national teams, we’ll start to see more and more players playing in the right environment and we’ll start to see a much more productive pipeline. The idea of developing kids from Los Angeles to come play in our stadium and be homegrown stars is an incredible motivation for us.”
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Let the games begin …
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