Commentary

LAFC general manager John Thorrington on getting ready for Year 1, working with Bob Bradley and learning from Sir Alex Ferguson

More than 20 years ago, John Thorrington left his Southern California home at 17 to sign for Manchester United. Injuries hampered his career, during which he played in the lower English divisions and for three MLS teams before retiring in 2013.

He worked for the MLS Players’ Union (now the MLS Players’ Association) and helped negotiate the current collective bargaining agreement. As he was finishing up a master’s degree at the Kellogg School of Business in Chicago, he began discussions with LAFC that led to his hiring in December, 2015.


Photos courtesy of LAFC

SOCCER AMERICA: Less than two months prior to the start of the season you have only 15 players on the roster. How is the rest of the operation shaping up?

JOHN THORRINGTON: We believe we are where we’d been hoping we would be. We’ve been pleased with the players we’ve been able to acquire and we’ve managed to put a staff together we really feel good about. I started about a year ago and then hiring Bob [Bradley in July] and then getting his staff and a lot of the support staff together, that’s been a large part of the focus.

Now, we’re calling this our ‘sprint to the start.’ We’ve still a lot to do, a couple holes to fill in the roster, but we feel like with the players we have and the ongoing conversations we’re having we’re in a good spot.
 
SA: Will you expand your staff and hire more people as the season unfolds and you have a sense of what areas are lacking?

JOHN THORRINGTON: No. We set the target at the start of the year to have our support staff in place, and we’ve managed to do that. In terms of Bob, his technical staff, our sports science and sports medicine, management, scouting, everything has been put into place: some at the back end of last year and the remainder just joined us at the start of the year.
 
SA: You mentioned sports science right off the bat. Why has this become so important in so many sports?

JOHN THORRINGTON: It’s a world apart than from when I was playing, certainly at the beginning of my career and in sports in general. The introduction of new technologies that are scalable and more efficient, the ways of getting information and maximizing the value of these assets; that’s what our business is, that’s what our players are.

They are resources in which we are putting our effort, our time, our money, etc. into acquiring. Certainly, sports science is an area where we want to be leading the pack in terms of what we’re doing with our players and maximizing their potential. Everything that we’re investing comes back to performance and giving our players the best chance to succeed.
 
SA: Most ex-players get into coaching and then some move into management What has been your path from player to executive?

JOHN THORRINGTON: When I was 21, I set out on this course of ‘This is the type of thing I want to do.’ From as early as 17, when I went to Manchester United, I started to pick up things that you kind of absorb. But from the age of 21 I’ve been very intentional to pick up on the various aspects of organizational behavior and high-functioning teams, whether that was in England or Germany or the various places that I’ve been in MLS. And I’ve coupled that with my graduate school.

So I started on a path long before I came to LAFC. But since then, I’m really, really grateful, to the organizations across the league. Obviously, we are fierce competitors on the field, but there’s been a very collegial dynamic to my conversations with teams that opened the door for me to observe, to visit their training grounds, to go to games.

We shared a lot of our experiences and the anecdotal, qualitative information that they have pick up on and been very gracious in sharing all that information with me. But the more casual observations started a long, long time ago.

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SA: The most successful expansion team in league history is the 1998 Chicago Fire, which won the MLS Cup title led by Bob Bradley. How long did it take for you and him to get on the same page?

JOHN THORRINGTON: Bob was at the top of the list when I got the job and started talking to ownership about who we wanted to lead everything on the field. I would say -- for all of us -- Bob has been fantastic in terms of getting up to speed very quickly. There was such a thorough process of getting to know each other that it did not take long to link up philosophically. That was why we hired him.

That has been a really great process. That is why we wanted to make sure he was here in July, to afford us this six months where we were not having the stress of, ‘What are we doing this weekend for this game?’ We really synced up on all the scouting we had done before and the hiring of the additional technical staff, really with everything we feel very comfortable with where we are in large part because of the hard work we’ve done over the last six to eight months.
 
SA: A lot of that work is building a roster, which in MLS is different than it is in any other country. You’ve not done this before, but did your time in the league educate you in the ways of MLS?

JOHN THORRINGTON: Yes, and as a player, I was heavily involved with the [MLS] players’ union. I was on the executive board as a player and then I was an executive at the players’ union. This CBA that currently governs the league, I was involved in those negotiations. So in terms of the vagaries and idiosyncratic nature of MLS, I do feel well-versed.

We have an assistant GM [Will Kuntz] who came from the league office who also has a great deal of experience with contracts, salary-cap management, negotiations, etc., and the good and the bad that has been done in MLS that we can certainly learn from.
 
SA: The LAFC Academy is already up and running. How do you see this aspect of team operations fitting into your plans?

JOHN THORRINGTON: Very early on in my conversations with ownership, I said one of my goals for this organization is that the 17-year-old version of myself now, who grows up here playing in an academy and has a chance to go to Manchester United, stays at LAFC.

If achieved, that would say a lot about what we’re doing at the academy but also what we’re doing at the first-team level, that it is an aspirational target that kids with options will go for and we have that pathway for that kid to play in our beautiful stadium. Our stadium has been called “The Cathedral” for good reason.

I talk about "from cradle to cathedral:’ what are we doing for our kids, our youth players here in L.A. who come to our games and see themselves out on that field, an experience that I did not have and other kids around the world did. What we are doing at LAFC is that our academy is an absolutely essential, critical and huge part of our programming.

I’ve been really, really pleased with the job that our academy director, Todd Saldana, has done with our director of coaching, Enrique Duran, who we got from Barcelona. They are doing a fantastic job with the academy and I think we will see the return on their good work in the years to come.
 
SA: You never broke into the first team at Manchester United but what did you learn by being at such a prestigious club at such a young age?

JOHN THORRINGTON:
When I think about a 17-year-old Southern California kid going to Manchester and probably just the language -- and even the language would be hard to tell was the same language -- would not have required a lot of acclimation. So yes there was a lot maturation throughout that process that I was incredibly grateful for.

But when I look at my time there, that was my soccer education. I got some of that here in the States, but when you’re thrown into a club that, at the time, was the most successful club on and off the field in the world, it was an incredibly valuable learning experience. You’re rubbing shoulders with those guys and, in my estimation, the greatest manager [Sir Alex Ferguson]. I still draw upon lessons today I learned when I was 17.
 
SA: What else do you remember about what you thought of yourself and your place in the game at that age?

JOHN THORRINGTON: For me, so much has changed. If you’d have told me at 17 that what we’re doing at LAFC, with this global team and a beautiful stadium just for soccer in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, I never would have thought it would happen in my lifetime.

That certainly speaks, on one level, to the type of changes we’re seeing in MLS that I don’t think people would have envisioned – let alone when I was 17 – even five years ago. A lot of people we have at the club were part of those early years that set the foundation that makes what we’re doing possible.
 
SA: In addition to the stadiums, what are the most important elements of change in MLS?

JOHN THORRINGTON:  The resources spent not just on players but on scouting, and we mentioned sports science. I think it’s become a much more holistic spending model, identifying and recruiting better players as well as getting more out of them when they’re on the field.

And the new narrative – I put our second Designated Player, Diego Rossi, into this category – is we are seeing young talent with a lot of their careers yet to play here in MLS. Diego is certainly one of them and there are lot of them around the league, young players with a lot of options, choosing to come to MLS and develop here. I think that goes a long way to drive up the quality of the product on the field, which I think is paramount in these discussions about being competitive globally.
 
SA: Just about every aspect of soccer in this country is under scrutiny. One criticism of MLS is that games aren’t intense enough. Is that in part a function of too many players not under enough pressure in training to keep a spot in the starting lineup?

JOHN THORRINGTON: That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s one silver bullet that is the reason we did not qualify for the World Cup, but I’d certainly say that concept of having an incredibly competitive training environment day-in and day-out is a critical piece of what we want here at LAFC.

Is that easy to establish Year One, Day One? No. But is that an excuse? No. We certainly agree with that principle and are doing out utmost to ensure that every player on our roster is in a very healthy and competitive environment, that they are earning their spot every day in practice for the privilege of wearing the shirt on the weekend.
 
SA: A few teams – Seattle and Atlanta, for example – have set the bar pretty high for expansion entrants. What are realistic goals for LAFC in its first MLS season?

JOHN THORRINGTON: The league is getting more and more competitive. More and more resources have been introduced, there are more mechanisms for foreign players. It’s not easy for any team to make the playoffs, let alone do it consistently. That’s not a challenge we don’t welcome.

We know the challenges that come with expansion, we know there will be some turbulence, but we know we have a steady hand at the wheel both from an ownership perspective and from the coach, and we think we can chart these waters well.

Here, as compared to Manchester for an example, it’s much more difficult to be sustainably competitive. You see a few models in which that’s been achieved around the league, but just the way the allocation system works, the way that the league encourages parity, make it difficult. But that is our goal here.

There are teams that have been very successful to date in MLS and our goal is for this next phase of MLS is to be the benchmark and the most sustainably competitive team in MLS.

SA: What will occupy most of your time until the season starts?

JOHN THORRINGTON: Just rounding out the roster. We still have a DP slot available, we still have budget and TAM and various resources that we can spend on our opening-day roster. It is narrowing down those options and getting a few of those conversations across the finish line, to make sure we are set up on March 4.
 
SA: You start the season with nearly two months of road games before the home opener, which like the first game, is against the 2016 league champion and MLS Cup finalist last year.

JOHN THORRINGTON: It’s certainly not going to be easy but it’s not an excuse. We are aware of the challenges of expansion but our goal is to be competitive from the outset. That’s what we’re aiming for and I’m confident we will achieve.

1 comment about "LAFC general manager John Thorrington on getting ready for Year 1, working with Bob Bradley and learning from Sir Alex Ferguson".
  1. Matt Cardillo, January 17, 2018 at 9:43 a.m.

    Awesome stuff here. I remember following Thorrington when he moved to Huddersfield. I was able to track him through the Team-Talk website based in England. There was a guy named Chris Bergin who ran a chat group for US players abroad. Good times....back in the early days of the interweb. 

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