LOS ANGELES — No Hollywood casting director fills a role based on talent alone. Meryl Streep didn’t play the Terminator. Acting chops are just a part of an equation that includes look (perhaps even a stereotype), feel and reputation. The actor has to match an ideal.
The question heading into the 2017 MLS season is whether the new coach of LA’s star-studded soccer team—look at the roster, the record book or the jerseys—fits the bill. For most, the Galaxy’s identity is anchored by big names. The club launched in 1996 with the likes of Jorge Campos, Cobi Jones, Mauricio Cienfuegos and TV star/midfielder Andrew Shue. They were noteworthy names for a first-year American league.
Later, of course, the squad led by Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham—all coached by the most decorated American manager of all time, Bruce Arena—changed MLS forever while setting a new standard in Southern California. A brand had been established.
So when Arena left the club in November to take over the U.S. national team, Curt Onalfo hoped his name fit that Galaxy brand. On one hand, he had experience. A defender on that ’96 Galaxy side, Onalfo had been coaching since 2000. He assisted Arena with the U.S. in 2003-06, was the head man in Kansas City and at D.C. United and he’d been back with the Galaxy since 2011 as an assistant and reserve team manager. He was convinced he was ready for the big job.
On the other hand, Onalfo was fired from those positions in K.C. and D.C. And he had to know as Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard left L.A., and as speculation swirled that the Galaxy would cut costs, that there might be some pressure to make a sexier hire than the club’s USL coach.
“If they wanted a big-time, high-profile coach—and they’re out there—I could’ve probably swallowed that because of the profile of the coach,” Onalfo told SI.com. “But at the same time, it was my turn.”
Onalfo, 47, felt it was his turn to lead the five-time MLS champion because star power doesn’t represent the sum total of the Galaxy brand. It may be what they’re known for elsewhere. But in Southern California, a soccer hotbed that produced Jones and Donovan and so many more, it’s a local club looking to delve even deeper into the fertile soil. The talent is there, the economics are right and as Los Angeles FC prepares for its 2018 debut, there are battle lines to draw.
Onalfo said it was “baloney” that the Galaxy won’t be spending big in the years ahead.
“We’re doing things intelligently,” he said. “We need to give opportunities to younger players that are coming through our system and have worked with us because having some youth coming through is a valuable thing.”
Gyasi Zardes came through, and Bradford Jamieson IV, Raúl Mendiola and Hugo Arellano are on their way. The club’s Development Academy teams have won two national championships. Galaxy II was established in 2014 as the first MLS reserve side in USL. Onalfo led the squad to a conference title and ushered the likes of Daniel Steres, Ari Lassiter and Dave Romney up to the first team.
Going forward, the Galaxy hope to be as much about players like those as Giovani dos Santos or Jelle Van Damme.
“You have this depth, this youth, these young talented players that are just like me as a coach—fighting for the next opportunity. They’re doing the same thing,” Onalfo said. “Now you have the DNA of a team that attracts top players and adds others coming through.”
Arena understood that and upon his departure, he suggested that Onalfo, his former LA assistant and player at the University of Virginia, should get the job.
“His recommendation is the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten from him. It shows how much we believe in each other and the work I’ve done for him. Bruce is a tough guy. He’s not throwing around compliments,” Onalfo said. “I was [Galaxy president Chris Klein’s] first phone call when Bruce left, and he let me know I’d be interviewing for the position. I just thought all along I was the right choice, because if you look at the club when I came to the Galaxy in 2011, Chris was starting out in the academy. I was an [MLS] assistant coach and coaching the reserves. Chris rose to be president. [New GM] Pete Vagenas was then running the academy and he built the high school. In 2014, I was taken to build Galaxy II … the three of us helped build the infrastructure of the club.”
Klein told SI.com that Onalfo quickly emerged as the obvious choice, despite the fact that “some very big names came to us, both domestic and European.” Klein promoted Onalfo on Dec. 13, three weeks after Arena’s departure. Onalfo’s dismissal in Kansas City and D.C. didn’t give Klein reason to second guess, the president stressed. More than six years had passed since Onalfo was sacked by United. He was no retread. Rather, Klein said, Onalfo was reborn.
“Going through the experiences that he went through, it gives him motivation. And also how he managed that after D.C. United in taking a step back and coming into our club. He worked at his craft. We saw his progress with our own eyes,” Klein said.
“Look at what the Galaxy is,” he continued. “We want to build through the foundation of our club, which is more and more becoming our academy and our development system. So you have to have a coach who can get the most out of those players. Throughout Curt’s history, he’s gotten the most out of those players. You also have to have a personality that’s mature enough and big enough that can handle the big personalities that we have and that were going to continue to have. And I’ve seen Curt do that with my own eyes. He can relate to a David Beckham or a Giovani.”
Onalfo is sensitive to how his career is portrayed. He acknowledges that the firings were setbacks. But don’t use the word “failure.” In Kansas City, he said, he took over a squad that finished 11th in a 12-team league the prior season to within a game of the 2007 MLS Cup final (and a 12-14-8 overall record). The regular-season mark crept above .500 in ’08, but a slow start the following season resulted in an August dismissal.
He then made his way to the nation’s capital, but his stay was short. The 2010 season was a disaster, the roster was in mid-overhaul and United won only one of its first eight games. Onalfo faced another August axe just one year and one day after the first.
“I basically got my legs cut out from under me in Kansas City. That was a surprise. Then I had my head cut off in D.C.,” Onalfo said. “I couldn’t even get going in D.C. That’s when I started reflecting and said, ‘OK, what do I need to do get back to the top?’ I don’t make excuses. I always look at myself.”
He called Arena. At first there was nothing available in L.A. And then there was.
“It was a perfect scenario, because I could learn again under the best coach there is and also, at the same time, be able to have my own thing with the reserves where I could refine my trade,” Onalfo said. “It gave me an opportunity to help the club establish this great program to link the academy and the first team and also develop players for the future. Selfishly, I knew at some point Bruce would retire or move on. I’ve learned from my mistakes. It’s very difficult to build depth in a team, and I knew that I could be in a position where I could be helping the organization build players who can play for the first team but also, hopefully, build players that I can coach [in MLS] one day.”
Onalfo spent six years with the Galaxy, quietly climbing the scaffolding that he, Arena, Klein, Vagenas and others constructed. It was his route from rock bottom to one of the highest-profile jobs in American soccer. Onalfo said he rejected an offer to manage Chivas USA in 2013 and a couple other front-office opportunities, focusing instead on the “platform to get better” he enjoyed at StubHub Center. Ultimately, his experience, trajectory and knowledge of that scaffolding put him in prime position. Speaking fluent Spanish, which is native to so many in Southern California, doesn’t hurt either.
“He became the perfect choice for us right now,” Klein claimed, adding that the commitment to win the Galaxy way was as strong as ever. It’s just important to understand that the plan depends on more than glitz.
“Mr. Anschutz has always been very aggressive and [AEG CEO Dan Beckerman] has been very aggressive. They want us to win and they want us to do it in the smartest way possible,” Klein said. “It’s not a shift in our vision because our vision is to win and represent our city the right way, and that’s going to continue.”
It’s a city that’s as gritty as it is glamorous, and it sprawls for miles. Galaxies are in the sky. But look out your window on a night flight to LAX or take in an evening view from Griffith Observatory or Runyon Canyon Park, and you’ll see what appears to be just as many shimmering stars below. Those galaxies matter too.
“Would a [big-name] coach understand and know the organization and the players? That’s the challenge,” Onalfo said. “That’s where I knew I had the advantage. That’s where I knew I was the right guy.”