LA Galaxy have Zlatan and are the most decorated club in MLS. So why did they miss the playoffs again?
The pictures told the whole story. There were Ashley Cole and Romain Alessandrini, laid out on the StubHub Center turf and unable to comprehend how the LA Galaxy had squandered a 2-0 halftime lead to lose 3-2 to the Houston Dynamo. Then there was the Lion himself, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, staring blankly as he sat on the Galaxy bench.
There was more to the defeat than just no points in the standings: It meant the Galaxy would miss out on the MLS Cup playoffs for the second year running, a feat achieved only one other time in the team's history.
It doesn't seem all that long ago that the LA Galaxy were looked upon as a bedrock of stability. Championships -- not just trips to the playoffs -- were expected. The Galaxy have claimed a total of five MLS Cups, including three in a four-year span from 2011 to 2014. Their history is also littered with players who dazzled fans, from Landon Donovan to David Beckham to Robbie Keane. They had a head coach and GM in Bruce Arena who seemed to have cracked the code to deliver sustained success in the parity-driven world of MLS.
But less than two years since Arena left to take up the reins of the U.S. men's national team again, the Galaxy look rudderless. The organization is on its third head coach since the start of the 2017 campaign, and given the interim status of current boss Dominic Kinnear, probably will hire a fourth before the start of 2019. This has led to wildly different approaches to roster building: first an emphasis on stars, then making more use of the academy and then back to the original approach.
With six games left in 2018, and a trip to the postseason looking unlikely, Sigi Schmid was jettisoned. Thanks to last weekend's defeat to the Houston Dynamo, the Galaxy's playoff hopes have now officially ended. The arrival and performance of star forward Ibrahimovic has kept the team in the spotlight but it's unclear if he'll return next season, despite being under contract for 2019. (LA Galaxy president, Chris Klein, said via text message: "We will speak to [Ibrahimovic] this offseason to understand what is best for him and the club.") If he were to leave, and with crosstown rival LAFC making the playoffs in its debut season, a fate worse than missing the playoffs beckons: irrelevance.
So where did it all go wrong for the Galaxy? And what is their plan to make it right?
"They don't have a plan," said one source familiar with the club's operations who asked not to be identified. "They just react to things with panic, and now they've fired another coach."
Reached by telephone, team president Klein indicated that an organization-wide evaluation is underway, one that would have taken place even if the team had made the postseason.
"When a team doesn't make the playoffs, I take responsibility for that and try to look at all things and try to push us to get better," he told ESPN FC. "We did some good things this year and some things that still are not good enough. We're in a position now where we're evaluating that. We know the areas that we need to be better and we're looking at that now. We're not speaking publicly about that yet."
Power vacuum at the top
To get a sense of when the rot in the Galaxy organization began, you have to go back to May 2013. That was when Tim Leiweke (then-CEO of Galaxy owners AEG) departed, given that his relationship with Phil Anschutz had become frayed over the attempted sale of the company. Dan Beckerman was promoted to take his place, an executive with a different leadership style than his predecessor.
"Once Leiweke left, everything changed," another source with knowledge of the Galaxy's inner workings, who asked not to be identified, said. "Leiweke is a steamroller and all decisions were based on winning. Everything changed when he left because Beckerman doesn't have as strong a personality. When you start picking players for marketing reasons and all this stuff..."
Front-office dysfunction followed although the downward spiral didn't start right away. In 2014, the Galaxy won the last of their five MLS Cups but over time, players were brought in who, according to multiple sources, weren't wanted by Arena and were instead pushed by Klein, VP of soccer operations Pete Vagenas and technical director Jovan Kirovski.
One source said that neither Steven Gerrard nor Giovani dos Santos were top choices for Arena. Another source was more blunt, at least as it relates to Dos Santos.
"Bruce didn't want [Dos Santos]. It was Chris and Jovan pushing it down his throat, saying they needed a Mexican player."
Gerrard's tenure in Los Angeles proved to be sub-par at best, his undeniable soccer IQ unable to compensate for Major League Soccer's physical demands at his age. As for Dos Santos, he did deliver an impressive 2016 campaign with 14 goals and 12 assists but has unable to build on that season since. His production fell to six goals and three assists in 2017, and 2018 has witnessed an injury-hit season that has seen him produce only three goals and two assists in 14 league appearances.
Reached by telephone, Arena spoke positively in terms of his relationship with Klein.
"I worked with Chris for the most part," he said. "Pete and Jovan came in towards the end of my tenure there. I didn't do a whole lot with them. I always had a good working relationship with Chris. He was really easy to work with.
"With designated players, AEG is actively involved in terms of understanding why you want that particular player and the cost associated with it. They're involved. They're not at a distance. Beckerman certainly keeps an eye on the business."
But when asked if he really wanted Gerrard and Dos Santos to come on board, Arena said, "I don't want to comment on those things."
For his part, Klein insisted that when it came to signing DPs there was a "very specific process" employed, one that involved the head coach, the GM, Klein, Beckerman and Anschutz.
"We would never sign a player against the wishes of a head coach and GM," said Klein.
Dysfunction in the director's box
There was also confusion as to the leadership throughout the club. In particular, the roles of Vagenas and Kirovski left those impacted by their work confused as to where certain responsibilities lie.
"The way that it sort of played out is that there was a lot of crossover," former assistant coach Dave Sarachan said. "If you said, 'Who is the director of scouting?' I guess it was Jovan. He was kind of doing that, but so was Pete.
"In terms of bringing in players, who was responsible for that? Well I guess it was Pete and Jovan but if Jovan found a guy, who made the final decision? There was just a lot of overlap. For us on the outside it wasn't like, 'This guy's job is solely this and this guy's job is solely that.' It seemed like they all intersected."
As 2016 wound down, the influence of Klein, Vagenas and Kirovski would soon increase. Sarachan had already left the club when Arena departed to take up the reins of the U.S. men's national team in November of that year. He took plenty of staff members -- including assistants Pat Noonan, Matt Reis and son Kenny Arena -- with him and Vagenas was promoted to officially take Arena's place as GM.
"They were happy when Bruce left. They wanted Bruce out the door," one source said about those remaining in the front office. "They pushed Sarachan out the door. Anybody who has experience about soccer, they're gone."
It was then that the decision was made to change the team's direction. Anschutz wanted to see more return on the investment being made in the academy, so a page was borrowed from the book of the New York Red Bulls, one where there would be more use of academy products combined with veterans.
Curt Onalfo, who coached the reserve team, was brought in as manager with that approach in mind but a glut of injuries meant the younger players were relied upon sooner than anticipated and the results eroded. There was also dissatisfaction with the players acquired. While Romain Alessandrini was a hit, central midfielder Joao Pedro was a bust.
It was also evident that the roster was imbalanced. One example is how the retirement of Robbie Rogers and the inexplicable trading of A.J. DeLaGarza to the Houston Dynamo left a hole in the back that reinforcements from Galaxy II were unable to fill. The team's list of potential players was thin as well.
"There's no structure," said one source. "You need to have players in every position. All of a sudden there's an issue with a player and you need replacements. You should have a database of guys that you've been scouting who are options. It all has to be done. It's pretty poor, the scouting setup in my opinion, especially for a club of that stature."
With the team floundering in July 2017, the front office not only cut Onalfo loose but also the philosophy that drove his hiring by turning to Schmid. It's an assessment with which Klein disagreed.
"Hiring Curt [Onalfo], it wasn't something that we said, 'We're going all young and going academy,'" he said. "It wasn't that. And certainly bringing Sigi in with the hope of stabilizing it wasn't a shift back into the other direction, [though] I can see how it would be viewed that way."
Off the field, Schmid instituted significant changes. Vagenas was eventually demoted from his position as GM and in a bid to bolster the scouting setup, Schmid hired his son Kurt as the team's director of player personnel. He pushed for more investment in terms of support staff. It painted a picture of Schmid having the last word on player moves, but that was by no means the end of the dysfunction.
"Sigi comes in, he gets full control, his son Kurt basically took Jovan's job, and now it's a power struggle," one source said.
It was one Schmid ultimately lost, even though his September ouster was spun as a "collective decision."
For all of Ibrahimovic's goals, the team remained horribly imbalanced as any attempt to get the likes of Ibrahimovic, Ola Kamara, Dos Santos, Alessandrini and Sebastian Lletget on the field at the same time naturally compromised the team's defense. The expensively assembled back line -- Ashley Cole, Jorgen Skjelvik and Michael Ciani are all making in excess of the designated player threshold of $504,375 -- couldn't pick up the slack.
A late-season run under Kinnear saw him rely on the more modestly priced central duo of Dave Romney and Daniel Steres, as well as Jonathan dos Santos and Lletget in central midfield, but it wasn't enough; Sunday's collapse from a 2-0 half-time lead to 3-2 defeat proved that in excruciating fashion.
How to bring order to the Galaxy
The question now is where the Galaxy go from here. The front office has pulled the plug on two coaching hires in a row and hasn't shown much patience. Klein said that no decision has been made as to whether the organization will hire a GM even though Gregg Berhalter -- thought to be a leading candidate if he doesn't take over the U.S. men's national team -- has had full rein over the Columbus Crew's technical operations.
It's worth noting that Klein is the person who's presided over all of this. How secure is his position? In terms of a head coach, Klein said that process is ongoing as well and reiterated that Kinnear remains a candidate for the full-time post.
Regardless of which direction the Galaxy go, they need to do more than just hire a GM and a coach. Klein admitted that the organization's philosophy needs a reboot.
"Out of this process that we're going through, the culture and the definition of the Galaxy and our team from top to bottom and how we operate needs to be defined," he said. "It needs to be defined internally and externally in terms of how we're going to play and what type of club that we are and what type of club that we're going to be."
They also need to invest and evolve at the level seen by the league's best teams in 2018. The Galaxy need look no further than the way LAFC has built its roster -- sure, it has a star in Carlos Vela but also MLS standouts like Benny Feilhaber, Walker Zimmerman and Lee Nguyen -- to get an example of the right approach. In terms of infrastructure beneath the first-team level, the Galaxy have been without an academy director for two seasons now and it was Schmid who pushed for more investment in sports science and scouting. That work needs to continue.
"It was a whole different kind of technical organization," said Arena about his time in L.A. "It has grown greatly since then. I would say at the time when I came in, being the head coach and GM, that was fine. Even at the end it was fine. But there are so many other pieces now on the technical side that need leadership. It is different.
"It's grown tremendously. It can't look the same. There has to be changes, but like anything else, you need the right kind of leadership, the right kind of people running the organization."
Based on the available evidence, and a second straight season without postseason soccer at StubHub Center, big changes are needed.