Alexander: LAFC’s John Thorrington is our Sports Person of the Year

After the Los Angeles Football Club achieved its goal on the first Saturday of November, winning the MLS Cup in its fifth year of existence, the club’s main architect would have loved to kick back and enjoy an extended celebration.

John Thorrington took one week.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “If I could have just frozen time for two weeks, I would have done anything to just be able to freeze time and celebrate last year and not have to think about the future at all. I would have loved that. We’re not afforded that opportunity.

“But that said, it was an amazing week. We had some incredible celebrations. I definitely allowed myself to fully partake as best I could and really soak up that experience. And I know that (with) our whole staff, a lot goes into winning a title and we made sure that we were not going to take it for granted. You never know how many of these days you have as a player, as a coach, as an executive, as a staff member. And we definitely really, really enjoyed ourselves.”

And then, he added, after enjoying the moment “you come back to reality and have to have conversations with players and talking about next year.”

The process never truly ends. For Thorrington, one of the early employees of the expansion club that was awarded by MLS in 2015 and arose from the rubble of the failed Chivas USA experiment, it has been a seven-year journey. The culmination was that long-awaited championship and a second Supporters’ Shield for best regular season record – the first Shield in 2019, the team’s second year, set a league record for points in a season.

And there’s one more honor, if you could call it that.

LAFC’s co-president and general manager is this column’s SoCal Sports Person of the Year for 2022. It’s a low-budget award, so there’s no trophy or plaque. But considering the depth of sports excellence in this region, not just this year but every year, maybe it has some meaning. In this case it reflects both the seven-plus years of building the club and a recognition of 2022 accomplishments.

Thorrington, 43, is a South Africa native who spent his formative years in Palos Verdes Estates and was a two-time CIF Player of the Year at Chadwick before signing a contract with Manchester United after his junior year of high school. He later joined Bayer Leverkusen for two seasons but never played a first-team match. He ultimately played 11 professional seasons as a midfielder, two in the English second and third divisions and nine in MLS, plus four caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

After retiring in 2013, he worked in the offices of the MLS Players Association and got his MBA before LAFC hired him as executive vice president and general manager in December 2015. That put him on the ground floor of establishing the culture that has sustained the downtown L.A. club to this day.

He made some moves before and during the most recent season that might have raised some eyebrows but eventually pushed LAFC over the top.

The decision to promote Steve Cherundolo to replace Bob Bradley as head coach puzzled many on the outside, given that Cherundolo was coming off a 6-23-3 season with the Las Vegas Lights, LAFC’s developmental club in the second-division USL Championship.

“What gave me confidence in Steve was that he already knew LAFC,” Thorrington said. “And I think we are very much a club-first organization, where nobody is bigger than this club. And we have a culture and a way of doing things that supersedes any individual. And so what I loved and (what) gave me confidence about Steve is, he already knew that. He was a part of LAFC. He knew our players. He knew how we played. I knew him personally in terms of how I could predict he would interact with the group, which is often difficult to predict when you bring in somebody from the outside into an existing group.

“What I can definitely tell you is, nobody that knows Steve ever called me and said, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”

Thorrington’s highest profile player transactions in 2022 were a pair of international transfers during the season, Welsh star Gareth Bale and Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. Before that, LAFC paid a $5 million transfer fee for forward and designated player Denis Bouanga and re-signed Carlos Vela, the team’s first superstar.

Bale played a huge role in the MLS Cup victory over Philadelphia, scoring in extra time – the game’s 128th minute, to be precise – to tie the game 3-3 and force a shootout to decide the championship.

But sometimes the under-the-radar stuff is equally significant. Thorrington acquired a backup goalkeeper and penalty kicks specialist before the season from Philadelphia, John McCarthy, who merely wound up the MLS Cup MVP after two huge saves in the shootout sealed the victory.

These were just the finishing touches.

The process of getting this expansion team off the ground was intriguing enough – a two-year head start before playing a game, a blank canvas with which to implement a vision, and the first stirrings of a devoted and passionate fan base already in place.

“We didn’t want to feel the need to get splash over substance,” said Tom Penn, the club’s first president, the day Thorrington was hired. “We want substance and he’s going to deliver splash. … We want to be world-class in everything we do. He is, in our opinion, a world-class executive.”

It sounded like hyperbole at the time, and it seemed like a gamble on a first-year GM. But Thorrington took advantage of the assets in place – a large and diverse ownership group, the resources to make it work, and the opportunity to use both his overseas and MLS experiences to fill that blank canvas.

His first job here, he recalled, was “very clearly establishing what kind of club and team we wanted to be, and not adopting any preconceived notions or any legacy of what had come before us was this amazing opportunity.”

There were so many questions: Who should be the coach? Who would be the first star player? How to build an academy system? What would the playing style be? How would the stadium be designed?

“Before we made those decisions, we had a very clear vision of what we wanted this club to be about,” he said.

It was a labor of love for Thorrington, in a sense, precisely because it was in L.A.

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“I think if you were to say to me 10 years ago that what we’re doing, with a soccer-specific stadium of the highest quality that’s located right in downtown L.A., that sells out every single game, with the environment that is created by our supporters and our players, I would never have believed it,” he said.

“And I think … as somebody who grew up here, I don’t want to call it disbelief, but it is just incredible for me personally to have been away, having had to go away from L.A. to pursue my professional ambitions and then to take what I learned in Europe and across (MLS), bring that back home and share that with my city and my loved ones, my family, my friends. It is personally incredibly gratifying and is one of the things I am most grateful for about this job.”

He loves L.A. Maybe that helped make him the perfect guy for the task.

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