In an off-season full of change, perhaps no other move signals more about the changing mentality of the LA Galaxy than this one.
Curt Onalfo, formerly the head coach of the USL’s LA Galaxy II, was officially named the Galaxy’s new manager, the club announced on Tuesday. Onalfo succeeds now-U.S. manager Bruce Arena, under whom Onalfo worked as an assistant and during Arena’s previous stint with the national team. Onalfo also played for Arena at the University of Virginia and briefly at D.C. United.
"We kept coming back to Curt," said Galaxy President Chris Klein in a press conference announcing the hire. "He was the obvious, and the best choice."
Indeed, the hire makes a lot of sense in some ways. For one thing, Onalfo knows the Galaxy organization inside and out, having spent his time coaching the club’s reserve team before moving to its USL affiliate. He has also spent years learning under MLS’s most decorated manager. What’s more, Onalfo has a bit of MLS head coaching experience himself.
However, it is that previous head coaching experience that differentiates Onalfo’s hire from any the Galaxy have made since parting ways with Sigi Schmid in 2004. Steve Sampson’s reputation with U.S. fans after the 1998 World Cup debacle may not have been great, but he was still a big name when hired to replace Schmid. Frank Yallop’s stock has dipped in recent years, but at the time of his Galaxy hiring in 2006 he was just a few years removed from winning two MLS Cups with San Jose and was widely considered to be one of the league’s top coaches. Ruud Gullit’s Galaxy tenure may have been a disaster, but there’s no denying that the legendary Dutchman was also a flashy hire, followed by yet another one in Arena.
Onalfo, by contrast, was an MLS journeyman as a player and has yet to experience much success as a coach. His 2007 and 2008 Kansas City Wizards squads made the playoffs both years but only won one of five playoff games in that span. He was fired by KC during the 2009 season, then was hired to take over D.C. United for the 2010 campaign. His tenure in D.C. lasted just 18 regular season games, in which the team went a disastrous 3–12–3.
"I look at those prior experiences as platforms for me to get better," Onalfo said at his introduction press conference. "I’m always trying to get better and always trying to evolve. I’m not a person that looks back a lot, I’m always in the now and looking forward...I feel like I’ve improved in every aspect as a coach since I came to the Galaxy."
Other MLS coaches have had disappointing debuts only to rebound later on with a different club (the Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch comes to mind). But in comparing Onalfo’s résumé with those of his predecessors, it’s clear that he is a different type of hire for the Galaxy, which is turning into a different type of organization.
This change is reflected both above and below Onalfo. With Arena gone, former Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas is the club’s new general manager, having spent previous seasons overseeing the club’s academy. On the roster, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, and presumably Landon Donovan will all be gone in 2017. In the past, one could count on those spots to be filled by another flashy signing or two. Now, with Onalfo in place, that’s far less certain than before.
"We’re going to continue with the excellence the Galaxy have always had, but we’re going to do it a little bit differently," said Onalfo. "Why? Because I’m a head coach, and Pete is the GM."
However, Onaldo, Vagenas, and Klein all stopped short of saying the Galaxy's big-spending days are over.
"We’re going to contiue to sign world-class talent. That’s what the Galaxy is," Onalfo said. "But we’re also looking within our club. We have a great structure, an amazing academy. And then we have a Galaxy II program. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it for a long time to come."
And yet, despite the club’s myriad successes with their ambitious strategy, there’s a case to be made that a shift in philosophy would a good one. Los Angeles is one of the nation’s soccer hotbeds, and anything the club can do to integrate itself even further into that culture–making even more inroads with and a stronger commitment to developing and playing the area's youth–will reap dividends down the road, particularly with the 2018 arrival of expansion team LAFC.
Furthermore, other clubs in MLS have shown that the holistic approach the Galaxy have shifted toward can work in both the short and long term. The Red Bulls also once aimed for spectacular signings (though with far less success). Now, with a foundation based on youth and player development, the club has experienced its most successful years ever. FC Dallas, despite having the league's lowest payroll, won the 2016 Supporters’ Shield and has a seemingly endless pipeline of talent from its academy system, one that has already provided both depth and key players to the first team. There’s no reason the Galaxy shouldn’t try and adopt this model, or at least some version of it.
Put simply: it’s seeming like a changing of the guard is in the works. Just like Onalfo is a club-groomed replacement for an iconic manager, the Galaxy appear more likely to replace their departed superstars with less flashy successors rather than big-name, high-priced options.
And while that thinking may be prudent, it’s appropriate to reflect on the type of club the Galaxy has been to MLS for so long. This was the club that brought Keane, Gullit, Jorge Campos, Luis “El Matador” Hernandez, David Beckham and the tawdry ghost of Abel Xavier into the league. It may not have always worked out, but it was consistently entertaining to watch unfold.