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Is LA Galaxy becoming a historical footnote?

Wednesday 27th September 2017
When your one living legend publicly criticizes the franchise, things are not going well. After Landon Donovan's recent remarks, LA Galaxy know the feeling.

How the mighty have fallen. The Galaxy has been Major League Soccer's most successful franchise. It has won five MLS Cups while going to the final nine times. It has won the regular season's Supporters Shield four times and been Western Conference champions eight. It has also twice won the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, that's the American FA Cup for you continentals, and the Concacaf Champions League once. All that was accomplished between the league's inception in 1996 and 2014. Not quite a Premier League era Manchester United but dynastic nonetheless.

While there have been no trophies in the past two seasons, the Galaxy at least made the playoffs. Then Bruce Arena left to rescue the United States Men's National Team from Jurgen Klinsmann. More on his progress there next week. Meanwhile, his former side's plummet to second bottom in the Western Conference, and therefore MLS as a whole, means the side will miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2008, when they finished bottom in the west on 33 points.

Luck had a great deal to do with that season's failure. Landon Donovan enjoyed a 20-goal campaign but the team struggled defensively, giving up goals in crucial moments.
As well, 2008 may have been the league's most competitive season. Only three franchises from 14 enjoyed positive goal difference in double digits. None were greater than nine in the red. Half the playoff teams conceded more than they scored over the regular season. FC Dallas missed out on the postseason despite being four in the black. Fair to say, 2008 in MLS was open season for any side with title hopes.

It's hardly the same in 2017. The Galaxy are woeful. If they cannot find three points in their final four matches, and no one will be shocked if they don't, this will be their worst season ever. LA has won just seven times, only twice at the StubHub Center. They've conceded nearly two goals per game, 58 in 30 matches, while finding the net themselves just 37 times. That makes them 21st and 19th respectively, of 22 teams, in those categories. Their minus 21-goal differential is superseded only by DC United's -22. Ironic that, considering United won the league's first two titles and was the dominant power before LA's ascension.
And that is the danger the Galaxy face. The underlying factors behind this forgettable season suggest, rather than an anomaly, it could be the first of many. In his current gig as an analyst for Fox Sports, franchise icon Landon Donovan said as much.

It doesn't look like they have a real plan for what they want to do or who they want to be.

Unlike some analysts--put your hand down Robbie Savage--Donovan isn't the type to make pithy observations without supporting his remarks with thoughtful analysis:

When you build a team, you build down the middle. Any coach, general manager, sporting director will tell you that. You need to have solid pieces. 

Nor is he shy about pointing out examples:

We're not to the point in Major League Soccer where you can miss on a player like [Joao Pedro], and I'm not saying he's a miss yet. He's still going to take some time to understand. But when you're spending a million-and-a-half dollars on a player, you need someone who is absolutely contributing and you can count on. And he just hasn't quite been that guy yet.

Or crediting rivals who are doing it right:

In speaking to [Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes] this week, I came away very impressed that he is involved in every situation that happens at this club. He knows exactly what is happening at all times, from their first-team players down to the academy, he's got his fingerprint on everything. That kind of clarity is something, candidly, that the Galaxy are missing right now.

While Donovan obviously believes Joao Pedro needs time to bed in, the retired star's criticism is reserved solely for Galaxy management.
While the European game has become increasingly business-oriented, with Paris Saint-Germain doubling down twice over on Manchester United and Real Madrid's six-figure transfers, clubs have far more freedom to operate than in American sports. There is no glass ceiling. The Neymar and Kylian Mbappe deals illustrate the point. If a club has the revenues, it can spend.

Not so in the United States. Spending restrictions of some form are in place in every competition to promote parity. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association each have 30 franchises. The National Hockey League has 31, the NFL 32. Without promotion and relegation, and just one trophy on offer annually in each sport, there needs to be some measure in place to give smaller market teams a fair chance against those with markets that allow for more revenue. What is the point in competing if you can never win? Even the Harlem Globetrotters' long-time patsies, the Washington Generals eventually threw in the towel.

Installing a salary cap, luxury tax, or combination thereof doesn't guarantee a different champion every year. Nor does it make the athletes and actual competition meaningless. It does, however, reinforce the necessity for good management. Having Tom Brady is certainly key but Robert Kraft's ownership and Bill Belichick's management are bigger reasons why the New England Patriots are perennial Super Bowl contenders. The same can be said for Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, and Jim Rutherford, respective cogs in the Pittsburgh Penguins' organization. The Pens became the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners in 19 years. The two franchises are always in the mix despite the NFL and NHL operating under professional sports' most rigid salary caps.

MLS has only 22 franchises, although it plans to expand to at least 28 in the next decade. Its salary cap is revenue based, like the NFL and NHL. Yet, the league allows each team to ignore the rules when signing up to three players. That's what Donovan meant when referring to Joao Pedro. While the league is moving away from marquee signings such as Kaka and Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the downhill side of their careers, and trending towards talented players in their mid-to-late 20s, Sebastian Giovinco, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Nicolas Lodeiro, Josef Martinez, etc, when splashing the cash, each designated player slot is dear. Pushing all-in on something less than a sure thing can be the difference between topping the table and becoming MLS ballast.
While there is never a good time to lose, the Galaxy couldn't find any worse. Next season, LAFC joins the league. While the Galaxy is going through a period where it is saying goodbye to top players far more often than hello, the new franchise created instant excitement by inking Mexico striker Carlos Vela. More indicative of Wings management's resolute purpose, the signing came after a long, ardent pursuit after Wesley Sneijder was rejected.

Meanwhile, the Galaxy lost Donovan and Steven Gerrard to retirement, Robbie Keane to quasi-retirement, Nigel de Jong to the Turkish Lig, Omar Gonzalez to Mexico, Juninho to Mexico then the Chicago Fire, and coach Curt Onalfo to his inability to make more from less. All that's left on the shelf is an ageing Ashley Cole, an injured Sebastian Lletget, Baggio Husidic, and Robbie Rogers, an unsupported Gyasi Zardes, and a retread coach, Sigi Schmid.

Team President Chris Klein seems content to blame the team's struggles on injuries.

We've moved on [from] a team that was old, that was built to win last year. I don't know if I'd call it a youth movement, but we needed a reset. We have good DPs that are in the prime of their career... We can continue to build.

Relying on Designated Players is the reason the Galaxy find themselves looking up at the league. Omar Gonzalez, a strong center-half, and Juninho, a consistent box-to-box midfielder were let go for salary cap reasons, when, as long-serving core players, they could have been awarded DP status. The former is winning trophies with Pachuca in Liga MX, the latter intent on an MLS Cup run with Bastian Schweinsteiger at Chicago Fire.
Rather than building from the middle, Klein is investing solely in his attack, with the Dos Santos brothers and winger Romain Alessandrini his designated players. He needn't look far to see where relying on starpower will take an organization. The once vaunted Los Angeles Lakers have taken up residence in the NBA cellar. In MLS, the original power, DC United, have become perennial doormats. Further afield, there is Merseyside, where Everton once bossed the town. Then the Toffees faded and new club Liverpool FC went on to far greater glory.

This is the choice Klein and the Galaxy face. Continue on their current path and cede the city to LAFC without a fight, or find a capable technical director to ensure the club's legacy doesn't become a minor footnote in MLS history.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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