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Column: Having a new coach won’t make the Galaxy more attractive to soccer fans

Curt Onalfo
Curt Onalfo smiles as he is introduced as coach of the Galaxy at a news conference in Carson.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

The Galaxy have always been bold.

When every other franchise in Major League Soccer was a tenant, the Galaxy built a stadium. When the league had a shortage of high-profile players, the team signed David Beckham.

This was the club of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, of Cobi Jones and Jorge Campos. By the humble standards of MLS, the Galaxy was the New York Yankees.

This made the decision to replace Bruce Arena with Curt Onalfo as coach especially curious.

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The underwhelming move, made official at a news conference Tuesday, was something that would be expected from the likes of FC Dallas or the San Jose Earthquakes. This was atypical for the Galaxy.

Whether Onalfo can coach isn’t the issue. This is a franchise that has always been mindful of its place in the hyper-competitive Los Angeles sporting landscape and made multiple attempts to break out of anonymity by recruiting the highest-profile names possible. This is the team that hired Ruud Gullit, a two-time world player of the year, as coach even though it was obvious the Dutchman lacked the temperament and specialized expertise required to coach in MLS. 

Now, it would be easy to criticize the Galaxy for not dreaming big or thinking outside of the box again. Someone such as Eric Wynalda could have provided the team and league with new ideas, as well as the kind of colorful personality that is sorely lacking.

But here’s the real question: Does it matter?

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The answer is that it doesn’t. Really, short of hiring of Diego Maradona and turning the franchise into a global gossip fodder, there’s really nothing the Galaxy could have done to increase their profile.

The franchise has paraded big-name players and big-name coaches through town over the last two decades, but remains largely ignored outside its devoted but modestly sized fan base. The Galaxy’s two-game playoffs series against Real Salt Lake this season went virtually unnoticed, and that was with Donovan on the field and Arena on the sidelines.

The obstacles that stand in the way of the Galaxy and MLS gaining mainstream acceptance are larger than any one coach.

“I don’t think there is a magic bullet,” said Dan Beckerman, the chief executive of the Galaxy’s parent company, the Anschutz Entertainment Group.

As much as the Galaxy pride themselves on winning — they have won a record five MLS Cups — the reality is that results don’t drive interest. The average announced attendance at Galaxy home games has remained steadily more than 20,000 over the last decade, regardless of whether the team has reached the postseason. Television audiences remain small.

There are plenty of knowledgeable soccer fans in Southern California, but the market is fragmented. The Galaxy have to compete not only with the other teams in the city, but also their own sport, as fans have the options of watching the Mexican or English leagues on television.

“I look at the number of people that are soccer fans as an opportunity,” Beckerman said. “Our challenge is to make them MLS fans.”

How that can happen is a debate that could go on for days. The positive news is that the league has become increasingly stable compared to where it was a decade ago, when it was on the brink of collapse and AEG had to take over a majority of teams. While legitimate complaints can be made about the level of play, the league isn’t going anywhere, which should provide time for the product to be improved and made relevant.

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And there’s nothing wrong with that. This is where the sport is in this country.

As for Onalfo, he came across as nervous but likable in his introductory news conference. He promised to implement an attacking style that would produce plenty of goals. He told jokes and spoke of his commitment to integrate players from the Galaxy’s youth academy, which, as bland as it sounds, is the kind of thinking MLS needs if it plans to evolve into a world-class league. The backbone of any league is its domestic players.

“We wanted the best man for the job,” Beckerman said. “Given where our league is and the game and the players that we have and the players that we have coming up, Curt is the best man for the job.”

That was the kind of assertion that wasn’t challenged Monday, but one day it will be. And that’s when the Galaxy will know they are really relevant in this town.

 


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