What happens when, as a football manager, you take over a championship dynasty that has just lost its iconic boss, desperately needs a roster overhaul, made no major signings in the transfer window, and is now spiraling down the table? New LA Galaxy boss Curt Onalfo might want to reach out to David Moyes if he’s uncertain, then update his CV.
Onalfo has had literally no success as the main man. Anywhere. He was briefly interim boss at DC United in 2001, transitioning from being Thomas Rongen’s second to Ray Hudson’s, obviously failing to impress. He was sacked early into his DC return in 2010, having taken only twelve points from eighteen matches. In the interim, at Kansas City Wizards, he couldn’t quite manage a .500 record in two-and-a-half seasons. In retrospect, I probably should have ended that last sentence with “he couldn’t quite manage.”
The Brazilian earned a reputation as a superb second-in-command under his Galaxy predecessor, Bruce Arena, both with the Los Angeles club and during Arena’s first stint as United States Men’s National Team manager. Hardly comparable experience to Moyes’ fifteen years at Preston North End, where the Scot won League One in 1999-2000, and Everton, where he was thrice named LMA Manager of the Year, before being tapped by Sir Alex Ferguson to (not) succeed him in Manchester United’s dugout. Nevertheless, the Galaxy braintrust expressed interest in Onalfo, so he chose not to follow Arena back to the USMNT. Oops.
Moyes “couldn’t quite manage” a full season at Old Trafford, axed with four games remaining. With two wins, five losses, and his team conceding nearly two goals per game in its first seven matches, Onalfo will be exceptionally fortunate to last so long.
His career arc more closely resembles Moyes’ caretaker replacement. Ryan Giggs completed the 2013-14 Manchester season, then held Louis van Gaal’s spare pen for two campaigns before United’s board reneged on its promise to give him the top job. Like the Welshman, Onalfo doesn’t appear cut out to be in charge.
To be entirely fair, Major League Soccer’s offseason runs from December through February. Its calendar is out of sync with Europe’s. North American clubs typically sign UEFA stars to arrive in summer, after their European season has ended and they’ve have had a few weeks’ holiday to recharge their batteries before playing another five months in a new country, continent, and culture. Thus, the problems Onalfo faces are largely inherited from his former boss.
Like Fergie at United, Arena chose to get out from under the Galaxy just when the getting was good. Unlike Sir Alex, though, the American’s farewell season was not a title-winning one. It could have been were it not for injury, aging stars, and a key defection.
LA’s next-generation stars, Gyasi Zardes and Giovani dos Santos, each missed significant stretches through injury. Steven Gerrard frequently joined them on the trainer’s table and was ineffective when healthy. Goal machine Robbie Keane took a few knocks, as well. Matters deteriorated to the point club legend Landon Donovan, settling nicely into a broadcasting career, was summoned from retirement, a la Paul Scholes, to see the team through the season.
The player whose absence was most felt, however, had to be deep-lying playmaker Juninho. Foolishly sold in 2015 for bookkeeping reasons attached to MLS’s inconvenient salary cap, the Brazilian spent 2016 with Liga MX outfit Tijuana. He’s back in MLS now, forming a stellar midfield trio with former NY Red Bull captain Dax McCarty and ex-Bayern star/United exile Bastian Schweinsteiger in time-honored Galaxy tradition, only at Chicago Fire.
Juninho’s replacement was notorious l’Oranje destroyer Nigel de Jong. The Dutch berserker announced his arrival in the New World with a horror tackle on Portland Timber forward Darlington Nagbe. Despite being his first MLS offense, the lunge earned the World Cup assassin a three-match ban. Major League Soccer’s disciplinary committee had seen him coming. Who says Americans don’t keep up with their football?
The ban appeared to have a tempering effect on De Jong. He avoided further discipline, becoming a solid box-to-box midfielder in the Gerrard/Frank Lampard mode. Unsurprisingly, his notorious enforcer tactics had caused most fans to long since forget he came up through the Ajax youth ranks as a prolific striker.
Then, just as the Galaxy were rounding into title-winning form, De Jong bolted for Galatasaray. Apparently, the Turkish Super Lig better suited his nature than Hollywood’s superficial scene.
Their midfield anchor having jumped ship and injuries piling up on deck, the Galaxy began to sink down the table. LA stayed afloat long enough to make MLS’s Western Conference semi-final, wherein Colorado Rapids torpedoed them on penalties.
Shortly afterward, Arena was tabbed to replace Jurgen Klinsmann with the USMNT. Veteran talisman Robbie Keane announced his intention to return to European football, which is apparently Gaelic for retirement. Gerrard dithered, then plainly called time on his career. Donovan put his boots in the closet, publicly declaring they would remain there this time. Lastly, Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic chose to sign with Manchester United rather than the Galaxy.
Ibra’s nasty landing against Anderlecht, last Thurday, possibly shelving him through January, might have snapped Curt Onalfo’s final hope, as well as the Swede’s knee ligaments. Rumors had again surfaced Zlatan may be signing with LA rather than taking his option for a second year in the Premier League.
MLS clubs are trending away from super-star retirement plans as transfer policy. Still, celebrity is Los Angeles’ most valuable currency. Putting bums in seats is difficult without both a winning side and an A-list roster. Ashley Cole and Jermaine Jones are a step down from Keane, Donovan, Gerrard, and De Jong in both respects. In turn, those four were a notch below David Beckham. Nor have Zardes or Dos Santos ascended to full-blown star status.
Worse, the Galaxy will soon no longer be the only show in town. LAFC will begin play in 2018. With celebrity names such as NBA Lakers legend Magic Johnson, Boston Red Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra, USWNT all-time scorer Mia Hamm, YouTube founder Chad Hurley, and some guy named Will Ferrell listed as investors in the upstart franchise, it’s given the new club will be eager to put star power on the pitch, too.
To stay relevant, the Galaxy need to act while it still owns the spotlight. Recruiting one or two top stars in the summer window is imperative. Bringing in an established name to manage them would seem just as crucial. To retain its status as MLS ‘s flagship franchise, the Galaxy simply cannot afford the time to rebuild from the ground up. Fair or unfair, and no one ever said life, business, or football were the former, Curt Onalfo may already have blown his last best chance.