Column: Will Galaxy tap an old strategy to regain its past dominance?
A decade ago, with the team stumbling to a third consecutive losing season, the Galaxy fired general manager Alexi Lalas and brought in former national team coach Bruce Arena to restore order.
It worked with Arena, who also took over as coach, leading the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances and three MLS Cups, the most successful stretch by any club in league history.
So now, after losing a franchise-worst 30 games and not reaching the postseason the last two years, the Galaxy are apparently talking to Arena again, hoping he can provide guidance for a team in dire need of direction.
Neither Arena nor Galaxy President Chris Klein would confirm the reports, first made by Yahoo Sports’ Doug McIntyre, but neither denied them.
“I really have no comment on that,” Arena said. “You should call the Galaxy.”
Said Klein: “We’re not speaking publicly. We’ve spoken to some of the biggest names in our sport. We’re just not at the point where we’re going to comment publicly on it.”
Arena is arguably the biggest name in U.S. soccer and if the Galaxy are talking to him, it’s an admission of failure on the part of management. When Arena left the Galaxy two years ago for a second stint with the U.S. national team, the front office, along with Dan Beckerman, president of AEG, the team’s parent company, rushed to dismantle everything he had built. They pushed out Arena’s top assistant, got rid of more than half of the veteran starters, promoted USL coach Curt Onalfo to the first team and tried to win with unproven players developed in house.
It was a disastrous strategy, one the Galaxy pulled the plug on after 20 games by firing Onalfo, replacing him with Sigi Schmid and sprinting headlong in the other direction. That didn’t work either, with Schmid finishing the 2017 season but failing to make it through 2018.
So now Klein and Beckerman are starting over, looking to hire a third coach in two years while basically conceding they’ve mismanaged the league’s premier franchise into a hollow shell of what it once was. They’re running out of chances to get it right.
“It’s a busy offseason for us,” Klein said. “We have some work to do with seeing who our next head coach is going to be and looking at some other things. We made some improvements this year but we’re certainly not where we want to be. We’re looking at evaluating everything.”
Klein said much the same last fall and what followed was not the expected front office overhaul but a doubling down on a losing hand and a minor reorganization that ended with Klein signing a five-year extension as president. It’s unlikely the team will try to placate fans with cosmetic changes again this time.
If Arena is invited back — and that is by no means certain, with both sides urging caution — it likely would be in a newly created position as general manager or as head of soccer operations, assuming many duties handled by Pete Vagenas.
According to reports, the Galaxy have also talked with Todd Dunivant, a defender on the team’s last MLS Cup champion in 2014 and a Stanford graduate who is general manager of the USL’s Sacramento Republic. If he were hired it would add redundancy to a front office that already has three former Galaxy players in executive positions.
Either way the team will have to sort things out quickly, and the hiring of a coach could be the move on which everything else hinges. Current interim coach Dominic Kinnear is the only candidate the team has publicly confirmed but Klein is also reportedly interested in Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, another former Galaxy player, and former Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, Klein’s college roommate.
They have very different profiles. If hired, Berhalter, also the favorite for the vacant national team coaching position, would probably insist on being in charge of player personnel decisions, as he is in Columbus. Porter or Kinnear, however, would likely benefit from an experienced general manager such as Dunivant or Arena.
“We’re evaluating that part and the hope is that we’re going to have a structure that comes out of this that is clearly defined both internally and externally,” Klein said.
Whoever is hired will have a lot to sort out, beginning with the status of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who topped the Western Conference with 22 goals and led the team with 10 assists. Ibrahimovic has another year left on a contract that paid him $1.5 million this year, just a quarter of what Gio dos Santos received in a second consecutive dreadful campaign.
Ibrahimovic has intimated he’ll leave without a new deal but with all three designated-player spots filled for next season, the Galaxy have no payroll flexibility. Trading midfielder Romain Alessandrini to Montreal would open up a spot but it would also cost the team one of its most productive players. Buying out Dos Santos would be a better, if more expensive, option, but that might not play well with the team’s third DP, Dos Santos’ brother Jonathan, who was arguably the Galaxy’s best player over the final month.
“We have a very positive relationship with Zlatan and continue to be in conversations with him. Our hope and expectation is he’s going to be back,” said Klein, who could have a resolution on Ibrahimovic’s situation as early as this week, when Galaxy players return to StubHub Center for end-of-season exit interviews.
There are other problems to address as well. The team’s once-vaunted academy, which has not had a full-time director in two years, just lost top prospects Alex Mendez and Uly Llanez to German clubs. And although Kurt Schmid has added some professionalism to the team’s scouting department, it continues to underperform. While the rest of the league has rushed into South America, signing game-changing players such as Josef Martinez, Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Rossi, the Galaxy remain the only MLS team without a player from the continent.
So if the team’s interest in Arena is serious, or even if it’s just asking advice, it might be a sign management has finally conceded things are broken and need to be fixed. Arena did it once before. Maybe he’ll get a chance to do it again.