You couldn’t blame Galaxy President Chris Klein if he felt abandoned as he prepared for the busiest stretch of the MLS off-season this week.
Last month, Bruce Arena, the team’s coach and general manager, left for the U.S. national team. Days earlier, the Galaxy parted company with captain Robbie Keane and fellow designated player Steven Gerrard. Then last week, Landon Donovan, the most decorated player in U.S. soccer history, said he was going back into retirement after a brief nine-game encore with the Galaxy.
That has left Klein to rebuild while also implementing a broad organizational philosophy of judicious spending combined with promoting from within, all as he tries to replace the most successful coach and general manager in MLS history. It’s a project that will begin in earnest this week with the MLS expansion draft, waiver draft and free-agent negotiations all taking place over the next five days.
“I believe we have a pretty good idea where we’re headed,” Klein said.
To help him steer the team there, the Galaxy moved Peter Vagenas from vice president of soccer operations to general manager two weeks ago, and this week is expected to name a new coach. Together they’ll begin reshaping a team that will return as many as eight starters from the one that reached the Western Conference semifinals last season.
“We have a sound core that we need to build around,” Klein said. “There are some decisions that still need to be made.”
The team is set up front, where Gyasi Zardes, recovered from a broken bone in his foot, will reunite with MVP candidate Giovani dos Santos, the team’s only returning designated player. Goalkeeper Brian Rowe will be back as well, along with defenders Jelle Van Damme, Daniel Steres, A.J. DeLaGarza and Robbie Rogers. Left back Ashley Cole, also under contract, is contemplating his future as are forwards Alan Gordon and Mike Magee, who are free agents.
That leaves the center of the field as the biggest area of concern because Sebastian Lletget is the only other returning midfielder who started more than 17 games last season. Jermaine Jones, who played with Colorado in 2016, is among the possible additions. Jones, 35, met with Klein and Vagenas last week.
Galaxy officials have said they will be careful in how they fill out their roster, stepping back from a past reliance on big-name — and big-salaried — designated players in favor of a more holistic approach that includes homegrown players as well as those signed with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) from the league.
Although Klein has no mandate to cut costs, AEG, the team’s parent company, wasn’t happy when the Galaxy finished last season with Gerrard and Keane — the two highest-paid players on the team — on the bench. The team may fill just one of its two open DP slots this winter, saving money now while also giving the team roster flexibility during the summer transfer window.
Last year, when the team maxed out with three designated players, $457,500 of each contract was charged against the Galaxy’s $3.66-million salary budget, meaning the team spent more than a third of its cap allowance on three players — two of whom combined to start just 34 games.
Contrast that with Van Damme, who was far less heralded but had a far bigger impact while earning less than $470,000, according to the MLS players union. And with MLS having approved additional TAM funds last Friday, giving each team up to $1.2 million in league money to spend on salaries in 2017, signing players like Van Damme could be even easier this winter.
“We learned from Jelle,” Klein said. “Our league is changing. It takes a specific person to be successful and then other pieces have to be right as well.”
Going forward the Galaxy will also rely more heavily on its player-development system, a transition signaled by the promotion of Vagenas, the team’s former academy director, and the emergence of Curt Onalfo as the leading candidate for the coaching vacancy.
For the last three seasons Onalfo has coached Galaxy II, a USL affiliate that operates as a kind of farm team. In recent years, AEG has invested heavily in Galaxy II and the team’s academy program, which together have produced first-team players such as Zardes, Steres, Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal and Raul Mendiola.
“We’re in on all of it,” Klein said of the Galaxy’s broad approach. “We have an academy that is strong. We have to see the fruits of that and that will be the foundation.”