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.

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.

Major changes loom for the LA Galaxy

To say the pieces simply didn’t fit is an understatement. The names the LA Galaxy assembled were cornerstones for any franchise in Major League Soccer. The task was to mash as many cornerstones onto the pitch as possible.

The Galaxy couldn’t, after being eliminated from the Major League Soccer playoffs last week. Now, the marquee franchise of the league has no choice but to change.

I didn’t approach the subject last week because let’s face it: most of us were all worked up over the presidential election and its aftermath. But I’m tired of reading about that stuff, so here goes.

When the Galaxy first started playing a version of fantasy football instead of soccer, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The problem is that doing so suggests the franchise figured piling on international stars would simply overwhelm the rest of a league full of North Americans. As international fans will tell you, every continent has a fundamental different style of play. European clubs don’t play the same as South American clubs, for instance. Here in North America, the Galaxy took a sort of European/Mexican/American approach and as a consequence, I think there was little cohesion.

Put another way: Who was the go-to guy for the Galaxy? Robbie Keane? Giovani Dos Santos? Jelle VanDamme? Steven Gerrard? Hell, was it Landon Donovan with his brief comeback?

Consistently successful franchises have a plan, find the talent to fit the plan, and execute. The Galaxy was that type of franchise. Now it isn’t, so it’s incumbent upon the front office to simplify. Change is necessary.

Gerrard is likely the first to go. The former Liverpool midfielder suggested as much in a social media post that stated he will miss the city of Los Angeles. I don’t hate Gerrard. Seems like a great guy. He’s right. He didn’t fit.

This may sound absurd, but I think Keane might be next. He’s a free agent and the former MVP has suffered significant injuries the past two years.

The gut feeling is the team might purge older players and rebuild the team around Dos Santos, who is entering his physical prime, is among the leaders of a pretty damn good Mexican National Team and as a Latino, would blunt the competition for fans that expansion team LAFC will try to swipe.

A Galaxy team that returns next season with a healthy Gyasi Zardes with Emmanuel Boetang becomes lightning quick on offense, instead of one that chooses moments to counterattack. And an effective designated player signing, perhaps at midfield, would make up for the losses of two Europeans who are past their prime. Perhaps if Donovan is committed to a full offseason of training, that would be the guy to take.

I wouldn’t change a thing on defense. The Galaxy was effective there.

In the meantime, time’s a-wastin.’ Anyone who thinks the seasons in baseball or basketball is long hasn’t seen enough soccer to understand that we’ll be talking MLS sometime after Valentine’s Day.