LA Galaxy changes focus from stars to comets 

A little more than 20 years ago, when Major League Soccer debuted, its teams carried these fanciful names like the Wiz, MetroStars, Clash and Burn. As you might imagine, the Clash and Burn pretty much crashed and burned.

Only four of the original 10 franchises kept their nicknames, including the LA Galaxy — a moniker chosen because the club wanted to be among the stars of Hollywood. Eventually, the Galaxy backed that up with some of soccer’s biggest names — David Beckham the most glitzy of the lot.

Before training camps in MLS opened last week, the so-called glamour franchise abandoned that idea in a roster purge. It’s a gamble, not just in terms of name recognition. It also might be to the Galaxy’s benefit.

Los Angeles, which opens the season March 4 vs. FC Dallas, reinvented itself over the last two seasons by building its starting 11 from the back line up. In the process, the Galaxy are younger and quicker. Pardon me for overplaying the puns regarding astronomy, but they’ve replaced stars with comets.

There was a time when the Galaxy’s international presence boosted the entire league. The Beckham signing years ago forced the hands of other clubs to lure big names that were past their prime. LA eventually created its own bidding war. After a couple of years, even having Beckham wasn’t enough. So the Galaxy acquired other foreign stars such as Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane. That was a lot of skill. It often led to a lot of goals. It also meant, for a league with a Byzantine salary cap, a drain on defense.

Other franchises across the league eventually took advantage of the Galaxy’s crumbling foundation. The big names — all in their mid 30s — couldn’t play 90 minutes twice a week, or were prone to injuries.

Ultimately, the exodus of talent from the roster at the end of last season — which also included Landon Donovan and coach Bruce Arena — might have been inevitable.

The changeover for LA began in earnest when it rebuilt its defense before the 2016 season. Led by Belgian defender Jelle Van Damme, only one team was better in terms of conceding goals last year. The next step this last offseason was to rebuild the midfield. The Galaxy will feature three new starters there this season. The “name” addition is Jermaine Jones from the US national team, who is a bit past his prime at 35. The franchise’s hopes, though, appear to rest on Joao Pedro of Portugal and Romain Alessandrini of France.

Pedro, 23, is known for thinking defense first with quick decisions on where to pass. Alessandrini, who is supposed to join the team this week, is a speedster at 27. Their job is to get the ball to the Galaxy’s one remaining star, Mexican national Giovani Dos Santos.

For those of us oddballs who enjoy MLS and wondered what the hell the LA Galaxy was up to, we now know: These acquisitions substitute international reputation for functional versitility. It will be curious to see how that plays out for a franchise that has won MLS Cup five times. Indeed, it’s a brave new world.

There has to be more from the Galaxy

I read an authorless column from the Los Angeles Times this morning about how the moves made by the Los Angeles Galaxy were much ado about nothing because the team draws about 20,000 fans per game and the television ratings aren’t stellar.

I’m not sure that’s the point. Major League Soccer has mostly followed a slow-growth business strategy since its inception because it knew it wouldn’t surpass the NFL no matter what Fox News tells you about Colin Kaepernick. At some point, MLS might get ambitious and try to pass the NHL, but where club soccer ranks on the national landscape hasn’t been a factor.

Instead, Tuesday’s moves for the five-time champions appeared to be much ado about nothing because there is nothing to suggest the team will be any better next year. Even worse, it’s hard to tell if the team will qualify for the playoffs next year. Ultimately, that’s what matters to those 20,000 fans per game — which, I might add, is an attendance average that exceeds at least three Major League Baseball teams.

New coach Curt Onalfo is probably a good idea, despite what the afore-mentioned column suggests. True, the Galaxy have excelled at attracting internationally known soccer commodities. In my eyes, though, the least important star should be the coach. The U.S. men’s national team tried that approach with Jurgen Klinsmann and it didn’t exactly help.

In addition to four seasons as an MLS coach, Onalfo has served as the Galaxy’s USL coach. “Los Dos,” as fans like to call the team, has played pretty efficient soccer. To me, letting him run the big club is a sign of continuity. The Galaxy have earned that right to ask for fans’ trust there.

But the incoming players so far are underwhelming, at best. It seems to me the Galaxy have a trustworthy defense that doesn’t need addressing. Midfield and forward, though, are cringe-worthy at the moment. We already know about the departures of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard and Nigel De Jong. What might be under the radar for fans is that dependable scorers Mike Magee and Alan Gordon are no longer under contract, either.

The Galaxy acquired the rights to two midfielders yesterday. Jermaine Jones is a name MLS fans have heard of. He’s also a 35-year-old reserve. Miguel Aguilar is a guy who couldn’t regularly crack the lineup for his last MLS team. It’s hard to believe either of them will make an impact.

The team has two designated player slots for next year. For the uninitiated, it’s basically a way to circumvent the salary cap to acquire top-level talent. The rule was created so that the Galaxy could add David Beckham back in the day.

The sooner those slots get filled, the more likely we’ll be impressed.

There has to be more… Shouldn’t there? 

Galaxy seeks continuity with Vagenas

About two days ago, it hit me that Monday’s “press conference about the Galaxy” had to include a front office hiring. I would have updated my blog, but hey, football.

It’s somewhat common for sports franchises to call press conferences without being specific. The idea is to get the press gossiping and create buzz. The problem is, with mass layoffs coming in waves in print journalism, there aren’t that many people to buzz about anything, especially pro soccer in America.

Anyway, former Galaxy captain Pete Vagenas was named general manager Monday, replacing Bruce Arena, who left to rescue the United States men’s national team from the abyss. Vagenas previously oversaw much of the Galaxy’s operations, from youth academies to the big club. The promotion feels like the right thing to do.

Vagenas’ first step is to find a manager who can get more out of the roster than smugness. There was a perception by MLS fans that the Galaxy underachieved the last two seasons. If continuity is a goal, Vagenas already knows Dave Sarachan is off the market. The assistant quit with an eye on joining expansion LAFC next year. That leaves Curt Onalfo of the Galaxy’s lower-level affiliate, nicknamed “Los Dos.” Onalfo has previous MLS experience with Kansas City and Washington D.C.

Where it gets uniquely curious is the roster. The Galaxy had been adept at luring foreign superstars — albeit at the back end of their careers — to the U.S. Arena was presumably their salesman for that. What could Vagenas offer in a rumored bidding war with two other MLS clubs for Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira?

The Galaxy lost two, possibly three, offensive weapons in the last month. Steven Gerrard retired and Robbie Keane is looking elsewhere. Vagenas’ first call might be to gauge Landon Donovan’s interest in continuing his comeback.

Ultimately, the path might depend on how much growth Vagenas saw in their academy teams. FC Dallas tried a similar approach and became surprisingly powerful. The question then becomes if youth — with Emmanuel Boateng and Gyasi Zardes — are what gets matched with midfielder Giovani Dos Santos. Arena never could solve the conundrum of matching Dos Santos with Gerrard and Keane. Perhaps speed becomes more valuable than guile.

It’d be nice to read something hopeful about the Galaxy soon

I don’t expect opinions on Major League Soccer to lead to a spike in page views, but I find the LA Galaxy right now to be far more interesting — and troublesome — than anything social media has to say about the president-elect. That would be because I know virtually everybody’s opinion on the president-elect.

But what the hell is going to happen with the premiere franchise in MLS? I have no idea.

In less than two weeks, the winner of five MLS Cups — and possibly the only club that anyone overseas even notices about American soccer — lost two of its biggest names and its coach/general manager. One of those big names, striker Robbie Keane, is a former MVP and won three titles. Bruce Arena would have been in charge of filling multiple major holes in the roster, only he left Tuesday to rescue a confused and unmotivated United States national team.

We also have no idea if Landon Donovan, likely the greatest player in U.S. history, will return to the team or if he’s content having made a curtain call comeback so his family could see him play.

This is a talent drain both on the field and in the front office that couldn’t come at a worse time, especially after that foolish decision by the league to insert a second team in Los Angeles. Keep in mind: the league tried that before with Chivas USA and that team tanked so bad the league had to pay to keep the franchise afloat.

It’s hard to understate how important the Galaxy is to soccer in the United States. When the league struggled out of the gate more than 20 years ago, Galaxy owner Philip Anschutz purchased multiple teams to keep MLS afloat until it got its financial house in order. The Galaxy also brought welcome international attention to the league when it signed British legend David Beckham, which inspired average sports fans to give the team and soccer a chance.

Losing Arena, Keane, Donovan and Steven Gerrard is — admittedly on a much smaller scale — akin to the Pittsburgh Steelers losing Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethelisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. But for MLS, it’s a headache. It’s one thing for a signature franchise in the NFL to struggle. The NFL isn’t going anywhere if the Cowboys, Packers or Steelers stink for five years.

But MLS might become the fourth most-popular team sport if it continues to grow a fan base. In order to do that, simply put, the Galaxy can’t afford to suck.

The offseason isn’t particularly lengthy in MLS. Baseball ended at the start of this month. Opening day in the major leagues comes about a month after MLS kicks off.

The clock is ticking in Carson, Calif.