Atlanta United’s third goal during their 4-0 demolition of the Galaxy back in September was something to behold.
Miguel Almiron, signed from Argentine club Lanus, patiently probes outside the 18-yard-box. The young playmaker who commanded a $8 million transfer fee waits for Hector Villalba to make not one but two runs before slipping the industrious winger from San Lorenzo into the area. With LA’s defense scrambling, Yamil Asad uses the forward momentum from his run to ghost into the box, leaving Michael Ciani in the dust.
Villalba finds Asad with a single touch and the Velez Sarsfield attacker passes the ball into the net to send the Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd into rapture, the cumulative result of a talented squad with a clear attacking identity.
Up against Atlanta was a Galaxy defense consisting of: Chelsea legend Ashley Cole, a Ligue 1 center back in Michael Ciani (Replacing Standard Liege captain Jelle Van Damme) Dave Romney, and an out-of-position Rafael Garcia filling in for injured Dutch right back Pele Van Anholt. Portuguese recruit Joao Pedro paired with Jermaine Jones in the midfield, Marseille signing Romain Alessandrini and Helsingborg pickup Emmanuel Boateng lined up on the wings, and Villarreal transfer Giovani dos Santos played behind Gyasi Zardes up top.
Starting to notice a pattern? To say the Galaxy are overly reliant on European imports is an understatement. They’re completely dependent on them.
Atlanta United FC took the league by storm in 2017 by prioritizing young Latin American talent. Part of their success is due to the magnetic influence of megaboss Tata Martino, whose team personifies flair and a commitment to the attack unlike anything ever seen in MLS. United have also benefited from a scouting network that’s done their homework and a savvy front office who’ve used every mechanism in the book to construct a dynamic squad without sacrificing on quality.
Yamil Asad, a loan signing that counts a mere $150,000 against the cap, performed like a 4th Designated Player with 7 goals and 13! assists. Newly crowned Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel was United’s second pick (8th overall) in the SuperDraft. Jeff Larentowicz, a player cast away by Galaxy management, comfortably earned a starting job for the Five Stripes.
Atlanta have dipped their toes in Europe, specifically with the loan & purchase of goal-scoring machine Josef Martinez from Torino, but the continent is just one piece of the puzzle for technical director Carlos Bocanegra and company.
It’s not just the South who’ve been making moves. Toronto FC has rightfully earned universal acclaim for building the deepest roster in league history. NYCFC has a distinct European flavor, but the club has shown a willingness to venture in the transfer market, plucking Maxi Morales from Mexico and Costa Rican international Ronald Matarrita from Alajuelense (Marcelo Sarvas’ old club), as well as utilizing their relationship with parent club Manchester City to acquire up-and-coming talents like Yangel Herrera, a star at the U-20 World Cup.
And the West is stockpiling Latin American talent with increasing regularity. Last year the Sounders signed Nicolas Lodeiro and rode his form to their first MLS Cup, so naturally they went out and signed an attacking midfielder from La Liga in Victor Rodriguez. Peruvian national Yordy Reyna is thriving in Vancouver. Signed after lighting up the Venezeulan league, Jefferson Savarino was a shrewd pickup by Real Salt Lake, who have blended talent and youth to devastating effect the second half of the year. In many ways, the Houston Dynamo have replicated Atlanta’s success with a significantly smaller budget. Manager Wilmer Cabrera targeted Central America, acquiring Honduran internationals Alberth Elis on loan from Monterrey and proven goalscorer Romell Quioto from Olympia, who in tandem with Erick “Cubo” Torres have combined for 31 goals and 10 assists.
The league has evolved on player scouting. LA failed to catch up over the years, and finally paid the price.
So how did the Galaxy get into this mess? Winning, and lots of it.
It all began with Sir David Beckham, who after a rocky start delivered two MLS Cups and catapulted the Galaxy onto the world stage, paving the foundation from which LA would find success for years to come: Leverage the location to attract the best players, use AEG’s financial muscle to outdo the competition, and hire Bruce to run the ship.
A destination of choice, the city of Los Angeles presented a unique bargaining chip that allowed LA to court European veterans and USMNT players on their last legs. (Insert Jelle Van Damme in neon letters here) Bruce Arena was a top soccer mind and effective man manager with the gravitas and know-how to attract talent both abroad and around the league. And with AEG and Galaxy President Tim Leiweke bankrolling the operation, few teams could compete with LA’s ambitious spending.
All of these advantages built a stead pipeline of players from Europe to LA, from Designated Player and goal scoring machine Robbie Keane to valuable contributors like Stefan Ishizaki and Christian Wilhelmsson. It’s odd to think of Robbie Rogers and Baggio Husidic as European imports, but that’s where they came from.
And its hard to argue with success, as MLS Cups in 2011, 2012 and 2014 cemented LA’s legacy as the class of the league. As late as summer 2015, the Galaxy were the envy of many clubs when LA captured Giovani dos Santos after earlier prying Sebastian Lletget from West Ham for peanuts.
But no club, no matter how successful, can repeat the same formula over time without becoming stale. Clearly the disastrous Steven Gerrard signing should have warned Galaxy brass change needed to arrive sooner rather than later. And when Bruce Arena hastily left to manage the U.S. Men’s National Team, leaving behind a transfer policy producing diminishing returns, Chris Klein and company were in bigger trouble than they realized.
Which leads us to the 2017 season. Admittedly Romain Alessandrini had a fantastic debut season after arriving from Marseille, racking up 11 goals and 10 assists while single handedly carrying the attack.
But the rest of the Galaxy’s marquee signings have been puzzling to say the least. Joáo Pedro has performed adequately, but for a TAM signing with a $1.5 million dollar transfer fee attached he’s been disappointing. Jermaine Jones, a 35-year-old with a reputation for missing club time, was handed a $600,000 contract, a move directly linked to the departure of fan favorite AJ DeLaGarza. 33-year old free agent Michael Ciani earned his own $600,000 deal. Jonathan dos Santos is a skilled two-way midfielder but plays the same position as Jones and Joáo Pedro, putting his Designated Player signing into question.
The end result was a lopsided roster with plenty of holes. A slew of injuries didn’t help the cause, and the Galaxy academy failed to provide much relief, leaving USL players to fill in the gaps. The rest was history as LA finished dead last in the league.
The good news? There’s hope. (No I’m not talking about the reported possibility of more TAM, though it certainly helps)
After a year of excuses and denials, the Galaxy have rectified their mistake, stripping Peter Vagenas of his GM duties and bringing on Kurt Schmid to run LA’s scouting network. Make no mistake about it, this is not your typical father-son hire: Schmid is a self-made man with a global footprint of contacts, well respected around the league for his knowledge and strong work ethic.
Reading between the lines, the former Sounders head scout clearly understands LA must diversify their scouting network. He might not say it publicly, but after five years of open tryouts around the continent resulting in just a single signing, perhaps there are other ways the Galaxy could put their resources to better use.
Rebuilding this roster in 2018 is not going to be easy, but at least the ship appears to finally be heading in the right direction.