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Last chance for LAFC? Vela and co. head into new MLS season with change on the horizon

18:00 BST 15/04/2021
LAFC split
Having established themselves as one of the league's elite, the club may become victims of their own success as European offers loom large

Every team, no matter the level of talent, has an expiration date.

Some groups of players can ride their highs for years before moving on to a rebuild, while others crash well before reaching their peak.

Los Angeles FC, led by the mesmerizing duo of Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, suddenly face that existential reality entering year four in MLS.

LAFC's sky-high ambitions and lofty expectations have been mostly rewarded to this point, and they have established themselves as one of the league's marquee clubs in short order.

Still, an MLS Cup has eluded them, and in a division where specific teams and eras are not built to last, they know they must finish their mission before unavoidable change arrives.

After all, in this league, one where you must manage the allure of Europe and the complexities of a salary cap, keeping a winning team together is just as hard as actually winning in the first place.

So there lies the question: how much longer can LAFC keep winning and maintaing their current squad in pursuit of an MLS Cup?

"The more time you spend with players, you have more chemistry," Vela said of LAFC's core group of stars ahead of their opening fixture of the 2021 campaign against MLS newcomers Austin FC on  Saturday.

"You can play better. You can prepare for a season in a better way.

"I feel right now, our team is stronger than other years so I hope we can do great things this year and maybe win a trophy. After that, we can let our guys go. It is one of the things we have in mind."

As he enters the 2021 season, Vela himself is looking to regain his form of previous campaigns after a stop-start 2020.

The Mexico international opted out of the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, deciding instead to remain at home with his pregnant wife. When he did eventually return to the field later in the season, he suffered an MCL sprain not long after.

In total, Vela was limited to just four goals in seven league appearances, as well as five in five throughout the club's run through the CONCACAF Champions League.

But even without the former Arsenal man, who had netted 53 goals in 67 total appearances prior to last season, LAFC kept chugging along towards the playoffs.

Much of the credit went to Rossi, the league's Golden Boot winner with 14 goals in 19 matches who, at 22, is the youngest player to ever lead the league in scoring. In the end, they fell short, though, losing to the Seattle Sounders in the first round of the playoffs and Tigres in the CCL final in December.

On the heels of that season, Rossi has been linked with several European clubs, and he may well become one of the league's most expensive sales at some point in the not too distant future.

Eduard Atuesta, the Colombia youth international, could also be on his way out soon too amid reported interest from Palmeiras while Canada's Mark-Anthony Kaye has been linked with Club Brugge in the past and midfielder Latif Blessing was also rumoured to be on his way out last year.

Over the last several years, those players have been at the heart of everything LAFC is done. Alongside Walker Zimmerman, who was shipped to Nashville last season in a blockbuster trade, that list of players has defined what LAFC has become.

But if the offers come in and those doors open up, those players may not stay in MLS long enough to define what LAFC will be.

"I think the club is doing a great job," Vela says. "They're finding really good players, and the players also are working really hard to improve every season.

Of course, it is not easy just to say, 'Yeah, I'm ready to go [to Europe]'. They have to find a good team, a good offer. They're working on that for sure. I think soon we will have a couple of players that will leave because they are really good players. It's not a surprise that some teams are interested in our players."

Added Kaye: "For me personally, the goal is always to have Europe as an option. We've been here for four seasons, three seasons of 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.

"Obviously, we don't dwell too much on that, we just try to focus on what we can control here with LAFC because this is our team now and this is what we want to give all of our efforts to, but we know that Europe is a possibility for a lot of players on our team and you just hope that it comes at the right time for both the player and the club."

LAFC have already seen one player head to Europe this winter, with winger Brian Rodriguez having joined Almeria on an initial loan deal. The Uruguay international, who was brought to LA for a club-record fee of $11.5 million (£9.5m), could reportedly remain with the Spanish side if they exercise a seven-figure purchase option.

But the core of the team which won Supporters' Shield in 2019 remains. They have established themselves as perennial MLS Cup and CONCACAF Champions League contenders but, at least so far, they have not been able to get over the hump.

This group has shown they are talented enough to do just that, but it remains to be seen if they will have the time together to get there before, in some ways, becoming victims of their own success.

"We feel like we have a responsibility to continue helping the team develop in the direction that the coaching staff has set out," Kaye said. "We've been here since the beginning, so we know all the stages the club has been through and we pull on those experiences.

"To answer the question it being like our last chance to do something? It's tough. It's tough to answer that. Obviously, we all are aware of contract situations and stuff like that, but we go out every day and just try to do our best and try to get three points every game.

"If we can do that, and take care of those things then, hopefully, the season goes the way we plan. If things happen that we can't control where players move on, then that's football, right? It's our responsibility to make sure the team is moving in the right direction."