Hello and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times weekly soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
I wish I could start out this week by telling you something you didn’t know but I’m afraid the biggest news is old news: The Galaxy are a mess.
And acknowledgement of that is no longer just a local issue.
ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, no fan of hyperbole, called them rudderless and quoted an MLS insider as saying the team didn’t “have a plan” and was “just react[ing] to things with panic.”
The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio rightly said the problems won’t be solved by changing coaches, something the Galaxy have done three times in the last 24 months. And still others have likened the front office to a train wreck or a dumpster fire, which seems unfair to train wrecks and dumpster fires.
But no matter who you listen to, everyone seems to agree on one thing: This winter may be the most important for the team in at least a decade. The Galaxy missed the playoffs two straight seasons for the first time since 2007-08, lost a franchise-record 30 games in that two-year period and did it all at a time when the crosstown Los Angeles Football Club was selling out all 17 of its home games and going into the final game of the regular season with a chance to finish atop the conference standings.
The Galaxy was in its 23rd season. LAFC is an expansion club.
Yet the Galaxy’s winter of change has not gotten off to a good start with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the one player the team cannot afford to lose, entering the offseason by hedging bets over whether he’ll return.
Ibrahimovic wants more money, which is understandable. He was the team’s MVP, made the league’s Best XI and was the MLS Newcomer of the Year. Yet the $1.5 million he earned for doing all that is basically pocket change compared with what he was paid in Europe.
In discussions with the team Ibrahimovic said money isn’t the only issue. He wants to have a chance at a title and he’s convinced the franchise, as it is currently being run, cannot provide that.
“For me to return, I want to be able to challenge for the trophy,” said Ibrahimovic, who hasn’t played on a team that lost 12 games since leaving Sweden as a teenager. “I want to feel I have a chance to be the best in MLS. My team, not me. But in the long term, I don’t know how this looks.“
Moments before Ibrahimovic threw down the gauntlet, the Galaxy announced they had fired Pete Vagenas, the team’s vice president for soccer operations, and were beginning a global search for a new soccer operations chief, one who would oversee the hiring of a new coach, the reconstruction of a flawed first-team roster, the restoration of confidence and direction and, presumably, the repainting of the StubHub Center on the weekends.
Sam Stejskal, writing on the MLS website, reported last week that the Galaxy were interested in bringing Dennis Te Kloese, the former soccer director for Chivas USA, back to Carson. That night a source close to the Galaxy said the team had offered Te Kloese, now director of Mexico’s national team program, the job and a day later Univision reported Te Kloese wasn’t interested.
The Galaxy would not discuss any of that and perhaps it was nothing more than a ploy by Te Kloese to drive up his price. But if those reports prove true and he has turned the team down it would be another stain on the franchise: Once the league’s target club and target destination, the one place where everybody wanted to be, the Galaxy is now seeing candidates turn down job offers.
And as each day ticks by without a hire, the team heads deeper into the offseason without a concrete idea of where it’s going, leaving valuable employees growing anxious about what will come next. There is fear that management, rather than addressing its own errors and conducting the far-reaching evaluation it has promised, will instead look for more scapegoats like Vagenas to take the blame.
“I don’t know exactly what will happen,” said one person close to the front office.
So how did we get here? Carlisle traced the decline to 2013 when Tim Leiweke lost his job as CEO of AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company. Leiweke helped establish the team, signed David Beckham, recruited Bruce Arena as coach and general manager, and was the architect of four of the Galaxy’s five MLS Cup winners.
Leiweke was strong-willed, forceful, confident and based his decisions on whether they would help the team win. His replacement, Dan Beckerman, is more calculating and has kept his eye on the bottom line as much as the score line. As a result the team’s decline has accelerated.
Beckerman, with the urging of team president Chris Klein and technical director Jovan Kirovski, devoted more than $40 million to the signings of designated players Gio dos Santos and Steven Gerrard even though Arena’s coaching staff wanted neither.
Both were huge busts.
Arena pushed to sign Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong for less than $1 million combined, only to see management push De Jong out late in the 2016 season before a contract clause triggered that would have made him a designated player.
The Galaxy made it to the conference semifinals that year but Arena believed with De Jong, they could have challenged for another title.
Arena’s departure for the U.S. national team after that season was largely cheered in the front office because it opened the way for Beckerman and Klein to put their own stamp on the team by dismantling much of what the coach had built. So they cut the payroll in half by getting rid of well-paid veteran leaders such as Alan Gordon, Jeff Larentowicz, A.J. DeLaGarza and Dan Kennedy – each of whom had played at least 125 games in MLS – and replaced them with minimum-wage players like Nathan Smith, Bradley Diallo, Hugo Arellano and Clement Diop, none of whom had made more than four MLS appearances.
(Spoiler alert: That didn’t work; the Galaxy lost a franchise-record 18 games and finished last.)
By then management may not have lost its mind, but it had surely lost its way. Insiders say privately the rapid decline has resulted in a team riven by personal rivalries and uncertainty over who controls what. When the team began its makeover last year, Klein and other executives repeatedly used collective pronouns such as “we” or “us” to describe the decision-making process. By the end of the season they were pointing fingers, using “he” or “they.”
Now the team is starting over again and one thing Klein has said repeatedly this fall underscores just how far the Galaxy has fallen.
“We need to have a club with a clearly defined structure, both internally and externally, that we can speak to and live by,” he told me earlier this month. “I don’t believe that we have had that. At least not the way that it needs to be, internally and externally, to move the club forward.”
Twenty-three years after the team’s founding, after a league-best five MLS Cups, 18 playoff appearances and a record 328 regular-season victories, the president of the most successful club in U.S. soccer says the franchise has no clearly defined idea of what it is, what it stands for or where it is going.
Strap in. This could be a long and bumpy ride.
A nation turns its lonely eyes to….
…maybe Gregg Berhalter?
With the Columbus Crew now out of the MLS playoffs expect Berhalter, the team’s coach, to be named manager of the U.S. national team. The U.S., which is in Europe for friendlies with England and Italy, has been without a full-time coach since Arena resigned after World Cup qualifying 13 months ago.
Berhalter, whom the Galaxy were also interested in, has been at the top of Earnie Stewart’s wish list since Stewart took over as general manager of the national team in August. But Berhalter and Stewart have refused to discuss their conversations publicly, not wanting them to be a distraction during the Crew’s playoff run.
With that now over, confidants of the former Galaxy assistant said final details are being ironed out and his hiring could be announced soon.
The U.S. has gone 3-3-4 under interim coach Dave Sarachan, another former Arena assistant, including a win over Mexico and a draw with World Cup champion France.
Show them the money
John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president for soccer operations, was a busy man at this time last year. His first-team roster basically had one name on it as Thorrington prepared for the expansion trade and trade window that would go a long way toward building the foundation for his team’s first season.
That foundation proved a strong one, with LAFC becoming just the fifth expansion team to reach the MLS postseason. And that leaves Thorrington with a lot less to do this winter.
At the top of the short to-do list is resigning veteran midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who played in a career-high 34 regular-season games, and defender Jordan Harvey, who played in 29. Feilhaber made $625,000 and is likely to seek more; Harvey made $150,000.
Center back Walker Zimmerman, who is also out of contract, declined a team offer in September and is planning to explore options in Europe. Zimmerman, 25, has said he is open to remaining in MLS but wants more than double the $235,000 he made in 2018 to do so. Zimmerman, who is in camp with the U.S. national team, started 26 games this season and matched a career-high with four goals.
You can also expect the team to give a well-earned raise to goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who made less than $69,000 during a 2018 season in which he played 34, including the playoffs, and recorded 10 shutouts.
Until next time