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Soccer newsletter: The Galaxy, once the model franchise for MLS, have suddenly become a joke

LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo, right, reacts after scoring a goal, with forward Javier Hernandez following.
Julian Araujo reacts after scoring a goal, with forward Javier Hernandez following during a 2022 match.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)
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Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we’ll look at why LAFC had to part ways with Cristian Arango and at another UCLA women’s player who made the decision to turn pro in Mexico and not in the NWSL.

But we start with the Galaxy, the most successful and storied franchise in MLS history but now a team that seemingly has no identity and no direction. The Galaxy were once the team of big names and big personalities. Jorge Campos, Landon Donovan, Cobi Jones, David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all played — and most won — there. Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid, the winningest coaches in league history, managed — and mostly won — there.

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But since Ibrahimovic left after the 2019 season, the team’s lone successful big-name signing was Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. (Riqui Puig hardly could have been considered a big-name player when he came here, but he might be by the time he leaves. And though Douglas Costa might be a big name, he’s largely been a disappointment on the field.)

In the last year rival LAFC, with whom the Galaxy shares the Southern California market, signed two U.S. national team players in Kellyn Acosta and Aaron Long; a five-time Champions League winner in Welsh standout Gareth Bale; and the captain of the reigning European champion in Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.

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Though the Galaxy have gone 33-36-21 with one playoff appearance since Ibrahimovic left, LAFC has won an MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield and made it to the CONCACAF Champions League final. And yes, it is fair to compare the Galaxy, an original MLS team, with upstart LAFC. They play in the same area, in the same league and under the same rules, but since LAFC debuted in 2018, one team has built a definable culture, stuck to a sustainable philosophy and become the league’s most successful franchise.

The other team is the Galaxy.

One team exudes success and confidence; it would rather go big than go home. The other seems tentative and uncertain. Where once the Galaxy oozed arrogance now, like the Wizard of Oz, the team prefers to work behind a curtain, asking its fans for support while avoiding accountability.

When LAFC re-signed its co-presidents, Larry Freedman and John Thorrington, to multi-year extensions last month, the team sent a news release. After the contract of Galaxy president Chris Klein expired in December, the team and AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company, refused to address Klein’s status for more than six weeks before sending a two-sentence, late-night email confirming his return.

Klein, who has presided over the longest title-less drought in Galaxy history, has been suspended by MLS through the end of the primary transfer window as part of a series of penalties levied against the club for violating MLS salary guidelines in the 2019 acquisition of Argentine winger Cristian Pavón. In response to Klein’s re-signing, a number of supporter groups said they will boycott games and about 100 of them showed up at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday to stage a loud protest in Legends Plaza before the team’s sparsely attended exhibition loss to New York City.

The Galaxy’s latest embarrassment came last week when FIFA denied the team’s attempt to send defender Julian Araujo to Barcelona on a $4-million-plus transfer. The paperwork for the deal was filed 18 seconds after La Liga’s winter transfer window closed and FIFA, in negating the transfer, declined to accept Barcelona’s argument that a computer glitch caused the delay.

“FIFA can confirm that the transfer of the player Julián Araujo from LA Galaxy to FC Barcelona was not completed in line with the applicable regulations,” a FIFA spokesperson confirmed in writing to The Times last Friday.

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Blame for the snafu has fallen solely on Barcelona but the transfer deal, after being agreed to, underwent some substantial changes at the last minute that might have delayed the paperwork filing. If the Galaxy ordered those changes or were slow in approving them, might they not also be to blame for missing the deadline? Plus news of the transfer’s failure came a week after the Galaxy announced winger Samuel Grandsir, a player under contract and one coach Greg Vanney had been counting on, would not return. He instead elected to stay in France and play for a second-division team.

League sanctions against team executives, transfer deadlines missed, starting players refusing to return — those are things that never happened to the Galaxy. A franchise that once was the model for MLS suddenly has become the Miami Marlins.

Vanney, a member of the team’s original roster in 1996, was brought back before the 2021 season to restore some of that lost luster. But before Klein’s suspension, which forced the team to give the coach the title of sporting director as well, it was unclear how much of a free hand he had in recruiting and signing players he wanted.

This winter, for example, he has yet to make a significant signing. He did add defender Chris Mavinga and midfielder Memo Rodríguez, but both of them had been released by their former MLS clubs and don’t figure to start regularly for Vanney.

The team reportedly is close to a deal with free-agent winger Tyler Boyd, 28, a former U.S. national team player who played just 45 minutes in the Turkish Super Lig in the last nine months. Still, Vanney insisted the Galaxy’s overall image hasn’t taken a hit from the team’s recent failings.

“I don’t know what the image is,” he said. “What I know is internally a couple of things. One is we want to be inside of the rules and we want to play the game the right way to build a roster and build a team. The second is we’re always going to push the edges of what it is because I think the Galaxy have always been a standard bearer in terms of driving the league forward. [Designated players] came about because of the Galaxy.”

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Everything’s just fine, that’s what he says now. When he was hired, however, he seemed clear a remake was in order.

“It’s our job to get this club back to where people expect it to be,” he said. “And I love that challenge. I love this opportunity to put those pieces back together.”

As steep as the Galaxy’s decline has been, it’s taken six years for the team to bottom out — if, indeed, this is the bottom.

The slide started after the team lost to Colorado on penalty kicks in the Western Conference semifinals in 2016 and Arena left to coach the U.S. national team. Management, led by Klein and AEG president Dan Beckerman, apparently hoping to prove eight consecutive playoff appearances and three MLS Cup wins that marked the Arena era weren’t solely the work of the coach, took the team in a radically different direction by cutting payroll by more than half and stacking the roster with academy players who had little MLS experience.

Not surprisingly, the results were disastrous with the team suffering through the worst season in franchise history. And things haven’t gotten a lot better since, with the Galaxy trying five general managers and five coaches in six seasons in which they’ve lost more games than they’ve won. They haven’t played in a league final since the second Obama administration. (Doubling down on a theme, the Galaxy announced Monday the launch of their 2023 kit will take place at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown L.A., a venue that, like the team, is well past its glory days.)

Perhaps now that Vanney has been given sole control — at least on paper — over player personnel matters, that will change. In his first two seasons as coach, the team has posted winning records and won a playoff game, the first time that’s happened in consecutive seasons with the same coach since Arena left. On the other hand, though the Galaxy once got the players they were interested in, in the last two seasons Vanney reportedly took a swing at midfielders Albert Rusnak, Acosta, Ilie Sánchez and Long and missed on all four.

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That three of them wound up in L.A. anyway is a further indictment of the Galaxy’s ability to attract top talent.

Can the Galaxy turn it around? Sure. But it’s going to be a little like turning around an ocean liner; it’s going to take time and it won’t be easy. But the team has plenty of resources at its disposal and that’s a good start.

The December trade that sent Kévin Cabral to Colorado leaves Vanney with an open DP spot and the departure of Cabral and Grandsir has freed up about $1.8 million in salary. He’ll have to hurry because the league penalties levied over the Pavón signing will severely limit the Galaxy’s ability to sign players during the summer window.

Still, for all its faults, AEG generally has been willing to spend, with the Galaxy’s payroll hitting a franchise-record $27.3 million last season. And even with this winter’s so-far underwhelming signings, Vanney, still among the league’s best coaches, has a solid base to build around.

Chicharito’s 35 goals in the last two years are second in MLS over that period and with Puig and Gastón Brugman playing behind him for a full season, he could be even better in 2023. Jalen Neal’s emergence could make the Galaxy backline better as well, especially if Araujo can overcome the disappointment of the transfer disaster. (Vanney said last Saturday the deal still might be revived despite FIFA issuing an autopsy and cause of death.)

With the Athletic reporting Monday that the MLS playoff field could be expanded to nine teams in each conference, reaching the postseason shouldn’t be a problem this fall. Once there, the Galaxy certainly have the tools to make a run.

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It’s always darkest before the dawn, right? So even if it’s midnight right now, the dawn is still coming. Once upon a time, however, the sun always shone on the Galaxy.

Arango’s departure was a matter of dollars and sense

LAFC forward Cristian Arango points up while running next to midfielder Kellyn Acosta
LAFC forward Cristian Arango points up next to midfielder Kellyn Acosta last season.
(Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

Speaking of LAFC and its co-president John Thorrington, he hadn’t even washed the champagne out of his hair after last November’s MLS Cup victory party when he realized keeping his championship team together would be impossible. And last week he lost perhaps the most valuable member of that team when Cristian Arango, LAFC’s leading scorer the last two seasons, left for Mexico’s Pachuca on a transfer.

MLS is a single-entity structure with a salary cap and a Byzantine payroll system that punishes, not rewards, success. A championship means bonuses, raises, new contracts and other perks that inflate a team’s payroll and make it difficult to stay under the cap. That’s the biggest reason the league hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2012. It’s also a big reason Arango, despite a bargain-basement salary of $683,000, became too expensive to keep.

“We knew coming out of a successful 2022, we would need to make a major move, and likely a difficult decision ahead of roster compliance,” said Thorrington, who is also the team’s general manager. “We evaluated all possibilities and this transfer provides the needed resources and flexibility to continue our ambition of winning trophies.”

Arango is the 11th player to leave LAFC since the team beat the Philadelphia Union on penalty kicks to win its first MLS Cup. Among the departures was Bale, who scored the extra-time goal that sent the championship game to penalty kicks. Bale, 33, played just 347 minutes last season and largely was ineffective when he was on the field, but he stood to make nearly $2.4 million, a budget-busting total that also would have cost the team a designated-player spot.

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Thorrington said he was surprised when Bale announced his retirement last month, but he undoubtedly greeted it with a huge sigh of relief.

Not so the departure of Arango.

His 32 goals in 54 games, including playoffs, were second in the MLS since his debut in August 2021. And at 27 he is in the prime of his career and signed for another year. But Arango had been asking for a much-deserved raise — seven players on the team earned more than he did last season — and because he was in the final year of his contract the team stood to lose him for nothing this fall.

Instead, the club sent him to Mexico’s Liga MX for a transfer fee reportedly in the neighborhood of $6 million. Thorrington paid Colombian club Millonarios $2.5 million to acquire Arango in summer 2021, and even if you figure in the nearly $1.4 million in salary LAFC paid him, the club still made $2 million off Arango — not to mention 32 goals, a Supporters’ Shield and an MLS Cup.

LAFC’s payroll was a franchise-record $19 million last season, but Thorrington has shed more than a third of that — $6.8 million — this winter. In addition to Arango and Bale, the departed include midfielder Latif Blessing, a member of the team’s original 2018 roster; Ecuadoran national team midfielder Sebastian Méndez and former Barcelona forward Cristian Tello.

Some of the money saved will be eaten up in the aforementioned raises and bonuses, as well as by the acquisition of Croatian forward Stipe Biuk, Spanish defender Sergi Palencia and Long, a U.S. national team center back Long. Defender Ryan Hollingshead, who was re-signed to a three-year, free-agent contract in November, got a pay bump as well.

But the Arango transfer and the departure of Tello, who was due to become a designated player, have given Thorrington a little room to maneuver before his team’s Feb. 25 season opener, and he’s promised to keep shopping. Ironically, the void he’ll most be pressed to fill is the one left by Arango. LAFC still has a number of potent forwards in Biuk, Denis Bouanga, Carlos Vela and Mahala Opoku, but all prefer to play on a wing. If coach Steve Cherundolo intends to continue playing a 4-3-3 formation, he’ll need to find someone to play in the middle, where Arango did.

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Another Bruin heading to Mexico

Maricarmen Reyes with UCLA in 2021.
(Cortesía Percy Anderson / UCLA)

Maricarmen Reyes scored the biggest goal in UCLA women’s soccer history last December when she banged home a rebound in the second overtime to give the Bruins their second NCAA title. Three weeks later, she celebrated by leaving the country, passing up the NWSL draft to join former UCLA teammates Mia Fishel and Anika Rodríguez with Tigres of Monterrey in Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil.

“This league is growing super quick,” said Reyes, whose team beat German giant Bayern Munich in front of 35,000 fans in a friendly last month. “What is super special about this team is our fans. And that’s something that I didn’t really feel when I was in the U.S.

“These people are super loyal and follow us and support us and want the game to keep growing.”

The fans are supporting Tigres largely because the team is winning, having captured a record five league titles. And that’s allowed it to draw — and compensate — players such as Reyes and Fishel, who led women’s soccer in 2022 with 33 goals.

For Reyes, 22, the move to Mexico was a homecoming of sorts. She’s the only member of her family who wasn’t born in Mexico, but she has played on three Mexican national teams.

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“I had this conversation with them,” Reyes said of her parents. “They’re like, ‘You know, we went to the U.S. to chase our dreams of giving you a better life and giving you more opportunities.’ And I came to Mexico to chase my dreams. It’s something that is hard to explain.”

Not really. For first-year UCLA coach Margueritte Aozasa, it was a no-brainer.

“It wasn’t a surprise because Mari’s on the full Mexican national team,” she said. “So they likely want their players playing with their national team in their own league.”

Reyes said she didn’t choose to go to Mexico until the Christmas break from school because she didn’t want a personal decision like that to detract from what she was trying to accomplish at UCLA. But she said she did speak with her former teammates in Monterrey and is happy with the decision, even if her apartment is furnished with little more than a mattress.

“This was the best fit for me,” she said. “I played with Mia for two years and I played with Anika for two years, so I had conversations with them. I didn’t want to close any doors, especially in the U.S. But knowing a bunch of the girls on this team and playing with them since I was like 15 because of the national team, I was super excited to just be here.”

Another of Reyes’ former UCLA teammates, defender Karina Rodríguez, plays for Club América in Mexico. That one university has so many players in Mexico is natural given Southern California’s deep ties with Mexico, Aozasa said. Among the next players to make the jump to Mexico could be Bruin freshman Andrea Frias, whose middle name is America.

“She goes by América,” Aozasa said “after Club América.”

And finally there’s this…..

Jesse Marsch, just the second American-born manager to coach in the English Premier League, is now the second American-born manager to have been sacked as coach in the EPL, having been fired Monday by Leeds United, a team with three U.S. World Cup players in Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. Marsch was 11-16-10 in parts of two seasons with Leeds, which is one spot above the regulation zone on goal differential. Bob Bradley, the only other U.S. coach to manage in the EPL, was 2-7-2 at Swansea City in 2016…. Manchester City’s 1-0 loss to a 10-man Tottenham side Sunday at Tottenham Stadium was the team’s fifth loss in as many tries in the stadium, which opened in 2019. In fact, City has yet to find the back of the net there despite taking 84 shots. ... Dodger co-owner Todd Boehly, who spearheaded a $5.25-billion purchase of Premier League club Chelsea last spring, has spent more than $650 million on new signings since the summer transfer window opened. A record $130 million of that went to midfielder Enzo Fernández, who became the eighth player to join Chelsea in January when he transferred from Portuguese club Benfica. So far Boehly hasn’t gotten what he paid for: Chelsea is ninth in the 20-team EPL table.

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Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

In case you missed it

Botched paperwork on Galaxy player transfer missed deadline by 18 seconds

LAFC is sending key forward Cristian Arango to Liga MX’s Pachuca

Quotebook

“I believe them. Because I said to them ‘if you lie to me, the day after I am not here. I will be out. So I will [have] faith because I believe you.’”

Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola in a May 2022 interview, expressing support of his bosses, who have been charged by the Premier League with breaking financial rules more than 100 times between 2009-18

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.

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