All Curt Onalfo wanted was another chance.
He had coached the Kansas City Wizards to the conference semifinals in his first two years, only to get fired halfway into his third. Hired by D.C. United, he lasted just halfway into the next season before getting sacked again, leaving him with an MLS coaching résumé that featured as many pink slips as playoff appearances.
So he turned to Bruce Arena, the one man he knew would listen to him, would encourage him and — eventually — would give him the third chance he needed.
“I had gone through some adversity,” Onalfo remembered of that 2010 conversation. “My goal was to be in a situation where I could roll up my sleeves, work hard, reinvigorate [myself] and just put more energy into becoming a better coach.
“I wanted to be in an environment where I was around a great coach and part of an excellent organization.”
A few months after that phone call he was, beginning a climb that would take him from managing the Galaxy’s reserve team to President Chris Klein’s choice to succeed Arena as coach of the most successful team in MLS history.
It was a six-year journey fueled by perseverance, faith and no small amount of blood, sweat and tears. And it all started with one man asking for a chance and another man granting him one.
“The decision wasn’t mine, but I think it’s a very good decision,” said Arena, who left the Galaxy last month to replace Jurgen Klinsmann as coach of the U.S. national team. “I’m sure I’ve had an influence on him, both good and bad.”
That’s putting it mildly. Arena, who is revered throughout MLS for a fierce loyalty to his former players and assistant coaches, had touched Onalfo at virtually every stage of his soccer career. He coached him as a physical defender at the University of Virginia and with D.C. United, coached against him when Onalfo played for the Galaxy and the San Jose Clash, then made him as assistant with the U.S. national team in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup.
“Outside of my father,” Onalfo said, “he’s the most influential man in my life.”
He’s also the winningest coach in MLS history, a hall of famer with 234 victories, five league titles and playoff appearances in each of his eight full seasons with the Galaxy. He got David Beckham to buy into MLS, made Landon Donovan into a leader, signed Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme and Gio dos Santos and turned a Galaxy team coming off three consecutive losing seasons into a dynasty.
But when Arena, 65, announced he was moving on last month, his protégé wasn’t shy about stepping forward.
“I felt very, very strongly that regardless of who was interviewed for it, that I was the right choice for right now,” Onalfo said. “I feel like I’ve earned it and I deserve it.
“I felt confident all along that it was going to be me.”
But if Onalfo, 47, is an Arena disciple, he isn’t a clone. Born in Brazil and raised in Connecticut, Onalfo played professionally in Mexico and France in addition to MLS and speaks multiple languages. He also survived a six-month bout with stage three Hodgkin’s disease during his playing days.
“I’m my own person. I have my own way,” he said without apology. “I am taking the attitude that I don’t want to fill his shoes. I want to create … something really special.”
He may face some challenges in trying to do that because the once free-spending Galaxy is transitioning to a more budget-conscious future. Although Klein said he faces no mandate to cut costs, the team has adopted a more holistic strategy for building its roster, lessening its dependence on high-priced designated players in favor of players signed with targeted allocation money provided by the league and those developed in the team’s academy or on reserve teams like Galaxy II, the club’s USL affiliate.
Onalfo would appear to be well positioned to lead that transformation. After coaching the Galaxy’s reserve teams for six years — taking Galaxy II to the USL playoffs in each of the team’s three seasons — he’s well acquainted with the players in the development pipeline. Plus, the two men above him in the front office — Klein and General Manager Peter Vagenas — formerly directed the Galaxy youth academy, which has produced first-team players such as Gyasi Zardes, Jack McBean, Raul Mendiola and Jose Villarreal.
Onalfo’s first week on the job was a busy one, with the Galaxy acquiring the rights to national team midfielder Jermaine Jones and parting ways with defender Leonardo and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. The former was the team’s Defender of the Year in 2015; the latter signed last week with Atlanta United.
But the Galaxy also returns eight starters from last season’s team, which made it to the Western Conference semifinals. So Onalfo, who never has lacked for confidence, is sure he’ll be successful from the start.
“I don’t have any doubts,” he said. “I don’t think that way.”
Should that confidence take awhile to produce results, however, Arena urges the Galaxy and its fans to do what he did: Give Onalfo a chance.
“Forget about me, legacy and all that stuff,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s done. It has nothing to do with the next coach coming in.
“Curt’s not going to be like me. He’s going to be his own coach … and he’ll bring in some new, fresh ideas. So you’re not getting me; you’re getting an entirely different person.”