Playing in an empty stadium in Orlando three days before Christmas, Diego Rossi got on the end of a lofted, close-range pass from Mark-Anthony Kaye and softly chipped the keeper to send LAFC into rarified air. In the two decades since the FIFA Club World Cup was founded, no team from Major League Soccer has ever participated, and Rossi's 61st-minute goal against Tigres UANL put the third-year club in position to change that.
However, as the game progressed, LAFC's energy level dipped and Tigres took advantage, scoring two goals in a 13-minute span to secure Liga MX's 12th straight CONCACAF Champions League title. The Mexican side would go on to show well in Qatar, winning two games at the Club World Cup before falling to Bayern Munich in the final, 1-0.
Despite that loss to Tigres, LAFC's ambitious goal to become globally relevant didn't seem quite as brash as it did when the club burst onto the scene in 2018. Now, as LAFC enters Year 4, the stakes have never been higher.
LAFC's CONCACAF Champions League run last season can be evaluated from a number of perspectives. On one hand, it became the first MLS club to defeat three Liga MX teams in the competition, led by Mexican star and club captain Carlos Vela, while showcasing an attractive brand of soccer and hitting a level few teams on the continent can match.
On the other, it was a missed opportunity on the heels of a disappointing, injury-riddled league season that ended with a seventh-place finish in the Western Conference and a first-round exit in the MLS Cup playoffs at the hands of the Seattle Sounders -- the second straight year Seattle has bounced LAFC from the postseason.
In a rematch of those playoff losses, LAFC will host defending the Western Conference champions on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, watch live on ESPN), a key early season test for both sides considered among the favorites to win the MLS Cup.
And with some of LAFC's core stars seemingly destined to move on in the not-too-distant future, the window for that group to capture silverware is closing.
"Every season is now or never," said head coach Bob Bradley prior to the season-opening win against Austin FC. "There is pressure to win every game, pressure to win trophies, we take the responsibility seriously if we are going to be a big team."
Despite winning the 2019 Supporters' Shield with a league-record 72 points, the expectation has been an MLS Cup -- an objective that LAFC have fallen short.
"We want to win trophies. A lot of people say the next step is MLS Cup and I understand that," Bradley added.
From the team's inception, members of LAFC's front office have often spoken about their desire to implement a model in which they develop young players and move them abroad for a profit, while competing at the highest level of MLS. There have been a few examples of such profitable business, but the big-money move has yet to come.
"I think that process got delayed a year by COVID," LAFC general manager John Thorrington said. "But it's certainly something where those conversations are picking back up again now that we're seeing some optimism in the market and some positivity looking forward."
In three years since arriving from Penarol in Uruguay, Rossi, 23, has blossomed in Los Angeles and is likely in line for an eight-figure transfer fee. He's scored 42 goals in 85 MLS games, including a league-best 14 in 19 games in 2020. Colombian midfielder Eduard Atuesta, a selection to the MLS Best XI in 2019, has also emerged as a player who could move abroad.
"I think guys like [Atuesta and] Diego have ambitions to play at as high a level as possible and we have that exact same ambition for them," Thorrington said. "I think those two, and I could name others, have been fantastic players for LAFC and we are open to and have been in conversations with them and their representatives and clubs abroad as to when the right opportunity comes up.
"It will be bittersweet for us at LAFC when we are selling these players because they've been a part of our history -- those two from essentially Day 1. But we also know that it's an important part of our model as a club."
As for Vela, the club's hope is that he returns to the dominant form he showed in his 2019 MVP season, where he set single-season league records for goals (34) and combined goals and assists (49). After missing the 2020 MLS is Back tournament with the support of the club to remain with his pregnant wife and then suffering an injury when the regular season resumed, Vela was limited to just seven league games last year.
"Carlos means what he says: he's committed to winning a title and winning another MVP," Thorrington said. "And we certainly would be ecstatic to see that happen this year."
Supporting cast of Rodriguez, Kaye on the move?
Vela and Rossi are the only Designated Players on the LAFC roster because the team loaned out its third DP, Uruguay international Brian Rodriguez, to Almeria in Spain's second division in February. At a minimum, Rodriguez will see out the season with Almeria -- the regular season runs through May 30 -- at which point he could sign with the club, return to Los Angeles or be transferred elsewhere.
It has been reported that if Almeria is promoted to La Liga and Rodriguez meets certain obtainable benchmarks, it would automatically trigger a clause in the loan agreement for the club to complete a permanent transfer. If that happens -- Almeria sits in third, which would put it into the four-team promotion playoffs -- it is expected that LAFC would receive a transfer fee between $12 million and $15 million after signing him from Penarol for roughly $8 million in 2018.
The list of possible exports doesn't end there. Kaye, Latif Blessing, Jose Cifuentes -- in addition to Atuesta and Rossi -- all figure to be foreign targets based on how they've performed for LAFC and in international competitions.
"For me, personally, the goal is always to have Europe as an option," said Kaye, a Canada international who LAFC in 2018. "We have three seasons under our belt playing together and we knew that if we played good football, we'd get good opportunities. So I think I can talk for other guys on the team that want to challenge themselves at the highest level in this sport.
"We know that Europe is a possibility for a lot of players on our team and we just hope that it comes at the right time for both the player and the club."
But when is the right time? For an MLS club with expectations to compete for MLS Cup, the league's calendar presents some obvious challenges.
"It's really hard because the summer window, guys like Diego, the goal for the player, and for us, frankly, is to get them into Europe," Thorrington said. "And that market in the summer is a far more active window and, as everybody knows, it's in the middle of our season. So you have to balance the club's objectives on the field with the right opportunity that you find for a player and for the club financially."
The ideal example for players leaving for new challenges is how Miguel Almiron left Atlanta United for Newcastle United in the Premier League in the January transfer window after he helped the team lift MLS Cup in 2018.
"With guys like Eduard and Diego, they know that we're committed to helping them at the right time to move on, because that's their goal," Bradley said Thursday, noting that Atuesta was on the verge of signing an extension. "But in order to do that, that means that every day they have to continue to push themselves and to listen and to be coached and find ways that they can grow as players. The better they play and the more football that they show every time they step on the field, that will produce opportunities."
LAFC hope to hone talent with Las Vegas deal
While LAFC has experienced a lot of success by fielding a combination of young players from South America with MLS veterans and an established star in Vela, in the coming years the expectation is that its maturing academy will start to play a major role in the makeup of the roster. After starting with a single U12 team in 2016, three academy players -- forward Christian Torres and defenders Tony Leone and Erik Duenas -- signed as homegrown players prior to last season. And while none of them received extensive playing time, a recent partnership with the Las Vegas Lights of the USL Championship should provide a bridge between the academy and first team.
After a long career playing and coaching in Germany, former United States men's national team defender Steve Cherundolo, who was capped several times by Bradley and has known Thorrington since they were teenagers, will serve as Las Vegas' head coach. The team will train locally with LAFC, but travel to Vegas for its home games. It's a structure Thorrington said was designed to keep the younger players closely aligned with LAFC while giving them opportunities to play in competitive games against grown men in USL.
"We love the idea that our players are going to be playing in front of 7-, 8-, 9,000 people in a real pressure-filled environment in Las Vegas," Thorrington said. "And I just think [Cherundolo] is going to be phenomenal working with not just our young academy prospects, but our young MLS players that will also get minutes and great game experience in these really meaningful games."
Then, if everything goes according to plan, those players will develop into MLS contributors with the potential for some to move on to European clubs, a model that multiple teams in the league -- notably FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union -- have shown can be lucrative.
It all goes back to the primary goal: winning trophies in MLS and beyond. That, and only that, will be how LAFC defines success this year.