LAFC officially opened training camp Monday with a revamped back line and a hole to fill at forward. Yet the team’s most important offseason addition might have come from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose office announced last week that it was sending LAFC a crowd to be named later.
“The news about the possible return of some fans to our stadium, that part is incredible,” said coach Bob Bradley, whose MLS team hasn’t played in front of home supporters in more than a year. “All of us are so excited for the day when, safely, we have our incredible fans back in the stadium and there’s some atmosphere. That has been so important to LAFC from the beginning.”
Exactly how many fans will be allowed into Banc of California Stadium and when they will be coming, that’s the “to be named” part. But Newsom is easing some COVID-19 restrictions, clearing the way for outdoor stadiums to allow at least 100 fans through their turnstiles beginning April 1. LAFC could welcome substantially more if Los Angeles County advances out of the purple tier, the most restrictive of the state’s four color-coded COVID-19 tiers.
If the county moves into the red tier by April 17, when the MLS season opens, LAFC could sell 20% of the 22,000-plus seats at BOC. If it reaches the orange tier, the team could fill a third of the stadium.
That might not sound like much, but after selling out all 36 regular-season games at Banc of California in its first two-plus seasons and losing just two, LAFC lost two of nine in an empty stadium there last year.
After posting the best regular-season record in league history playing before packed houses in 2019, LAFC slipped to seventh in the Western Conference and a first-round playoff exit in 2020 playing behind locked doors.
The team rebounded nicely in December’s delayed CONCACAF Champions League, beating Mexican clubs Cruz Azul and America to reach the final, in which it surrendered a lead in the final 18 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Tigres.
“It means so much to us. Especially here in L.A.,” defender Tristan Blackmon said of the fans, especially the boisterous supporters’ union, the 3252, which fills the north stand. “It’s important for us to get the people back in the stadium. We’re really missing them.”
He added: “Last year was inconsistent, and we know that. Fans are definitely part of that, but at the end of the day we’re on the field and we have to handle ourselves in a better way than we did last year.”
In an effort to fix that last part, general manager John Thorrington moved to shore up a defense that conceded a club-record 1.77 goals per game last season, adding Korean international Kim Moon-hwan at right back and sending $300,000 in general allocation money to the Portland Timbers for left back Marco Farfan.
They will join outside back Diego Palacios and center backs Eddie Segura and Jesus David Murillo, who became a solid duo after Murillo came over from Independiente Medellín in October. Four of the five are younger than 26, which makes the team younger. The added depth also means Blackmon, 24, who was called onto the national team for the first time in January, entered camp competing for a job — a competition he’s embracing.
“It’s best when you have to fight every training session, every week for a starting position,” said Blackmon, who finished last year with strong performances in LAFC’s three CONCACAF Champions League games. “It pushes you every day knowing that you have somebody to go against, somebody to hold you to a standard to keep playing well.”
LAFC returns the same goalkeepers in Pablo Sisniega and Kenneth Vermeer, who were inconsistent at best in 2020. Sisniega had two shutouts and four other games in which he gave up just a goal, but he also had a streak in which he conceded 11 times in 12 days. Vermeer surrendered 16 goals, against 19 saves, in eight regular-season games.
Up front, Bradley will welcome back Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, the league’s last two scoring champions. The pair combined for 68 goals the last two seasons but started just four MLS games together last year after Vela skipped the MLS Is Back tournament, then suffered a Grade 2 medial collateral ligament sprain in his left knee in his first game back.
Gone — temporarily, at least — is assist leader Brian Rodríguez, who is on loan to Almería of Spain’s second division, where he has played 40 minutes in three appearances off the bench.
A pair of 25-year-olds — Danny Musovski, who had five goals in 629 minutes last season, and Corey Baird, a versatile former national team player acquired in an allocation-money deal with Real Salt Lake — are expected to battle for Rodríguez’s playing time.