The ghost of Bruce Arena continues to haunt the LA Galaxy.
It has been almost four years since Arena stepped away from the club after the 2016 season to take up an ill-fated stint with the United States men’s national team. After Arena’s departure, the Galaxy first turned to Curt Onalfo with a mandate to use the club’s celebrated academy, only to change direction midway through 2017 and opt for Sigi Schmid. When Schmid was deemed unable to lead the Galaxy — and in particular one Zlatan Ibrahimovic — into the next phase of MLS’ evolution, LA then turned to Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
At the time, the signing of Schelotto was thought to be a coup. Here was a manager who brought with him the best of both worlds. After winning numerous trophies as a player with his beloved Boca Juniors — including four Copa Libertadores — Schelotto was a league MVP and MLS Cup winner with the Columbus Crew. He also brought with him an impressive coaching résumé from his time with Lanus and, in particular, Boca. This was the man who knew the league and had the kind of pedigree to lead international stars and one of the league’s original and most storied franchises. Or so the thinking went.
But over the course of two seasons, Schelotto proved no more able to return the Galaxy — five-time MLS Cup winners — to their former heights than his two immediate predecessors. Sure, there was last year’s Zlatan-fueled qualification to the MLS Cup playoffs, but it didn’t prove sustainable in 2020. And with the Galaxy floundering in last place in the Western Conference, Schelotto was dismissed with three games remaining in the regular season.
“Anyone in our organization, we’re always under constant evaluation,” said GM Dennis te Kloese on a Zoom call with media members on Thursday. “If the results are not good — and the results haven’t been good or even close to being good — that’s a worry.”
A look at the Galaxy roster practically screams underachievement. Good players abound. There’s Mexico international Jonathan dos Santos, U.S. international Sebastian Lletget, Argentine World Cup veteran Cristian Pavon and former U.S. international Joe Corona. There are promising up-and-comers in Efrain Alvarez and Julian Araujo. Then there is the biggest name of all, Mexico national team icon Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
Yet Schelotto wasn’t able to get much of anything out of this group. Hernandez and Dos Santos have done little to justify their designated player labels, although injuries have been a factor, with the former missing nine of the Galaxy’s 19 matches and the latter absent seven times. Defensively, the team has lacked organization and looked vulnerable in transition situations that have repeatedly left center-backs Daniel Steres and Nick DePuy exposed. Of late, seemingly simple marking responsibilities inside the penalty area have been an afterthought, with predictable results. In attack, the team doesn’t look particularly mobile, and was unable to build any kind of rapport with Chicharito and vice versa over the course of the season.
The 2020 campaign isn’t just a failure of managing but of roster construction as well, and there are echoes of past failures even though Te Kloese is just finishing his second season. When it comes to putting together a team, the Galaxy have long had a considerable imbalance in terms of spending on attack versus defense. That in itself isn’t unusual; there’s a reason strikers cost more than center-backs.
Yet the money that the Galaxy have spent on the defensive side of the ball hasn’t been spent well, with the club tying FC Cincinnati for the worst average goals against in the past two seasons at 1.93. In 2019, Ibrahimovic’s 31 goals in 31 league and playoff appearances papered over the cracks. In 2020, those cracks became chasms. In terms of pure dollars, Costa Rica international Giancarlo Gonzalez doesn’t come close to matching the financial outlay of Chicharito, but he was a critical miss in other ways. His inability to hold down a starting spot meant DePuy was forced to log more minutes than anticipated. DePuy held up well initially but has looked more worn down as the season has progressed.
The ineffectiveness of Gonzalez highlights the fact that the defensive spine of the team needs to be completely rebuilt, a state of affairs that was known before this season. Instead, the team went out and signed Chicharito, another massive swing and miss, especially when set against the production Ibrahimovic provided.
The Galaxy fared better with Pavon, who has been one of the few players to earn his keep this season, with nine goals and seven assists. But his loan is up at the end of the year, and his prior relationship with Schelotto was a big reason for Pavon coming to Los Angeles. Te Kloese has said that negotiations for Pavon to return are ongoing, but with Schelotto gone, there seems to be little tying him to the Galaxy.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been immense for all of the league’s teams. It has often been held up as an excuse for a team’s failures. But the compressed scheduled that resulted from the pandemic has revealed which teams had depth and which didn’t, and the Galaxy certainly fall into the latter category. That is an area that will have to be addressed in what figures to be an even longer offseason than normal.
Who will lead it? Te Kloese figures to still be around. Otherwise the team is looking at a fourth reboot in as many years since Arena departed. Whether the same will be true for holdovers such as team president Chris Klein and technical director Jovan Kirovski is another matter. At some point, the Galaxy organization needs to come up with a plan and stick with it.
As managers go, Schelotto is just the latest to depart.