COLUMBUS, Ohio — An hour after LAFC‘s attempt to win back-to-back MLS Cups came up short in a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew, 39-year-old Giorgio Chiellini sat on the trainer’s table in the visiting locker room flexing his knee up and back. After more than 800 career games during a career that saw him become a legend for both Juventus and the Italian national team, here he was, physically spent and emotionally gutted, possibly having just played the final game of his career.
Maybe in his heart, he already knows what his future holds, but Chiellini said he won’t come to a final decision until he’s able to decompress with some family time and a trip back home to Italy. Then he will settle on one of three options: Return for six months, play another full season, or ride off into the Santa Monica sunset as one of the best to ever do it.
“We will never have another player like Giorgio,” LAFC general manager John Thorrington said. “I can’t overstate the man he is, the leader he is, the player he is.
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“The impact that he has made and the legacy that he left will continue. Whether or not he is playing or not playing at LAFC, [having him at the club] is something that we have benefited from, and we’ll continue to benefit from it.”
During the team’s light training a day earlier, Thorrington said Chiellini felt pain in his knee. It was the type of thing that might have kept the center-back sidelined in the regular season but given the stakes, he was adamant that he was good to go. Even for a player who has experienced the sport at the highest level in parts of three decades, the desire to compete still burned.
To the uniformed eye, though, any sign of discomfort wasn’t readily apparent, and Chiellini was not at fault on either of the Crew’s two goals during a dominant first half for the home side. LAFC played its way back in the game in the second half, but Denis Bouanga‘s 74th-minute goal was all it could manage.
“I’m sad for the game, but they deserved to win,” Chiellini said. “I don’t think they are better in general, but they played much better tonight. From the middle of the first half to the middle of the second half, we weren’t able to close the gap, to close the middle. We allowed too many passes inside, and they were so dangerous in those moments.”
Still, Chiellni was able to reflect on what — despite the lack of silverware — was inarguably one of the more impressive single seasons by a club in MLS history.
“It was a beautiful journey that we must be proud of,” Chiellni said.
The marathon season began on Jan. 8, when the team gathered for training camp as the defending league champion for the first time.
Last year, LAFC defeated the Philadelphia Union in penalties to win MLS Cup in what immediately became one of the most iconic games in MLS history. Global star Gareth Bale, who joined LAFC just over four months earlier, equalized the game at the death in extra time, setting up the opportunity for backup goalkeeper John McCarthy — on after Maxime Crépeau exited with a red card and broken leg — to make a pair of heroic saves.
The expectation when Bale signed was that he would remain with the club through at least the 2023 season, but fresh off leading Wales at its first World Cup since 1958, he announced his retirement just before LAFC was set to begin training camp.
Over 11 months, LAFC played 53 games across all competitions, finishing one win short of winning the Concacaf Champions League, Campeones Cup and, finally, MLS Cup. There was also a quarterfinal exit in the inaugural Leagues Cup tournament that joined together every team from MLS and Liga MX.
“We didn’t win everything we wanted to win, but what I would say is we were the only team that put ourselves in those positions,” Thorrington told ESPN. “There are a lot of teams that would’ve loved to be in the position we were in. And I look at that as proof of a good process, as proof that we have a great staff, we have a great group of players. We came up short today and I think if you are looking at the season as a whole, I am incredibly proud that we were still standing.
“No team or staff has ever had to go through what we had to go through this year. Nobody from the outside will know what that was like, but I do. And I saw the work and the resolve and the guts that our guys showed, which makes me incredibly proud of them despite the disappointment of not lifting another MLS Cup.”
The work of building and maintaining a roster is an ongoing process, so while the club has yet to announce looming roster decisions, many of them having already been made, Thorrington said.
Still, the next few weeks have the potential to be a transformational period for LAFC.
Five starters from Saturday’s win — forward Carlos Vela, Chiellini, left-back Diego Palacios, midfielder Kellyn Acosta, and Crepeau — are out of contract, according to the club, and it’s unclear how to handicap their possible returns. All of them were mostly mum about their respective futures this week, preferring to keep the focus on the importance of Saturday’s game.
And just because other players remain under contract, that doesn’t guarantee their presence on the roster when the team reassembles early next year.
After Bouanga’s Golden Boot season, for example, will a big club in Europe come calling with a transfer offer LAFC can’t refuse?
“I leave that to the other people, even if I have a few years left on my contracts here,” Bouanga said through a translator. “I just have to say that I’m really happy at LAFC. I’m very happy here, but yeah, it’s a possibility to return to Europe. I let the club and my agents figure all of that stuff out. But as I said, I’m very honored to have worn this jersey and to play for this team.”
Though Thorrington acknowledged nothing is ever completely ruled out, he was clear LAFC does not plan to seek a suitor for Bouanga.
“He’s top goal-scorer in the league, a huge part of how we play,” Thorrington said. “He’s under contract for another few years, so our plan is absolutely and that he’ll be back. We never know what may happen, but it’s going to take a hugely, hugely expensive transfer for him to not be here next year.”
With Vela, Thorrington was less definitive.
“I think we’ll take time and as these decisions and more information becomes clear as to where we are with budgets and roster slots and things like that, we’ll have those conversations in the coming weeks to see what’s possible,” he said.
Vela has been the face of the club since before LAFC’s first game and has been one of the most influential Designated Player signings in league history, helping establish the club as the model for which others aspire to be. At times two years ago, the possibility of Vela’s departure felt imminent after two underwhelming seasons for both him and the club, but his willingness to reinvent himself the past two seasons — and ability to stay healthy — has been a major key to the team’s success. This season, for the first time, he appeared in every MLS game and his 21 goal contributions ranked 10th in the league while playing mostly as a central striker.
On Thursday, Vela reiterated — as he’s done many times — how happy he is in Los Angeles, but acknowledged the business side of the equation doesn’t always allow for everyone’s desired result. Reading between the lines, Vela seemed to be hinting that he would like to return but wasn’t ready to publicly volunteer for a significant pay cut if he didn’t have to take one. He made over $4.3 million this season as a DP, and it’s assumed around the league that the club’s preference would be for him to return on deal using Targeted Allocation Money.
After the game, Vela did not appear like someone ready to concede his time in L.A. is up.
“[Today] was a disappointing moment,” he said. “But I always say the only thing you can do is go with your head up and work more. It’s the only way you can really be a good player, a good person, a good man, when you’re still working, when you come back the next year and say: ‘Ok, I lost, but now I want to win and will work hard and try again.'”