Plastic sheeting covered the floor and furniture in the players’ lounge adjacent to the Galaxy locker room on Friday and the smell of fresh paint wafted into the hallways. A new landlord had taken over the property and he was not shy about redecorating.
“It’s a new team,” said Curt Onalfo, who Monday will open his first training camp since succeeding Bruce Arena as the Galaxy’s head coach last month. “It’s a new regime.”
Is it ever.
Since ending the 2016 season by losing to Colorado in the MLS Western Conference semifinals, the Galaxy watched Arena and his entire coaching staff leave for the U.S. national team. The team waved good-bye to designated players Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane, traded popular defender A.J. DeLaGarza, declined to re-sign Landon Donovan, Alan Gordon and Jeff Larentowicz and saw Mike Magee retire.
And though that exodus has given the Galaxy a new look, Onalfo says the team hasn’t strayed from its bedrock philosophies.
“Change creates opportunity,” he said. “And it’s going to be fun. We still believe in the Galaxy principles, and that is we want to win. That’s the mentality we have.
“Our goals are exactly the same as they’ve always been.”
They will be trying to accomplish them in a different way though.
Under Arena, a Hall of Famer and the most successful coach in U.S. Soccer history, the Galaxy thought big and spent bigger. According to figures released by the players union, the team’s combined payroll the last two seasons topped $37 million. Only Toronto spent more.
But by the end of the 2016 season, the team’s two best-paid players — Gerrard and Keane, who combined to make more than $9.5 million — were on the bench while defender Jelle Van Damme, who earned just $468,750, had become the team’s unquestioned leader as well as its best player.
So this winter, the team has been smarter about its spending. Its two biggest off-season acquisitions to date, central midfielders Jermaine Jones and Joao Pedro, were signed used targeted allocation money (TAM) from the league, meaning neither will cost the Galaxy more than $481,000. As a result, the combined salaries for the 22 players on the current roster will be less than half the $18.1-million payroll the team lavished on a 28-man roster last season.
The roster has gotten younger too. In last year’s season opener, the Galaxy used six players 31 or older. They’ll start camp this year with just four players that old, and half the team — and three-fourths of the coaching staff — is made up of recent promotions from the team’s player-development system.
“It shows a belief in our system, from top to bottom,” said Galaxy President Chris Klein who, like Onalfo, new general manager Peter Vagenas and assistant coach Ante Razov, all played for the Galaxy, then coached in the team’s academy system.
“That gives us an advantage,” added Onalfo, who spent the last three years coaching Galaxy II, the franchise’s developmental team in the third-tier USL. “There’s so much of an investment that’s going into our academy, our Galaxy II project. We used to just be the Galaxy, the first team. And now we’ve grown so much. It has to flow.”
Despite the offseason purge, Onalfo and the Galaxy are hardly starting over. Eight starters will be back, including leading scorer Giovani dos Santos and U.S. national team forward Gyasi Zardes. Also returning is a backline, led by Van Damme, that combined with goalkeeper Brian Rowe to limit opponents to just 39 goals. Only Colorado allowed fewer.
And the addition of Jones, a World Cup veteran, and Pedro, a 23-year-old holding midfielder who came on a reported $1.52-million transfer from Portuguese club Vitória Guimarães, have filled the team’s two biggest holes.
Unless the team makes another acquisition — it may still be kicking the tires on a deal for speedy Marseille winger Romain Alessandrini — Sebastian Lletget and Ema Boateng will be the likely starters on the flanks while Galaxy II graduates Jack McBean, Ariel Lassiter, Dave Romney and Raul Mendiola will be counted on to provide depth.
“I’ve worked with all these guys so I’m not worried about playing them,” Onalfo said. “It makes for a good team when you have younger players that are hungry to get in. It keeps everybody on their toes.”
It may take more than an enthusiastic coach and a new coat of paint to get the entire team to buy into the Galaxy’s makeover. But at least one key player is already onboard
“We’re going to have a great team,” Dos Santos said. “We have a great coach. With Curt now, he knows the club. He knows the players. I’m sure he’s going to get the best out of every single player.”