LA Galaxy grapples with uncertain future as NYCFC in the ascendency
The LA Galaxy had won seven of nine games heading into an inaugural matchup with expansion side New York City FC in August of 2015. For the defending MLS Cup champs, continued dominion looked assured.
Pregame hype centered around the potential midfield battle between former Premier League stars and England internationals Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard; kickoff was moved so the game could air in British prime time, and the Daily Telegraph even gave it the running blog treatment. But "in a blow to everyone concerned," as the blog read, an injured Lampard didn't even make the bench, let alone start.
It's testament to how far MLS has advanced in the years since that the marketing around two past-it European veterans feels so outdated, despite having happened barely two years ago.
The subplot to the Gerrard-vs.-Lampard showdown-that-wasn't pitted Los Angeles against New York City as the present and future super clubs of Major League Soccer. A couple of years on, the narrative has changed drastically. Few would have predicted just how quickly NYCFC could close the gap, especially after the Galaxy ran them off the field 5-1 that afternoon in Carson.
Ahead of Saturday night's rematch at the StubHub Center (11 p.m. EST, ESPN2/WatchESPN), New York City is in the ascendency, while the Galaxy grapple with an uncertain future.
LA fired first-year head coach Curt Onalfo to bring in the steadier hand of Sigi Schmid late last month. A Cascadian draw and loss later, the Galaxy now sit nine points out of the playoff spots with 12 games to play. This could just be a minor blip in the club's modern history -- Seattle, after all, overcame a similar deficit in surging all the way to the league championship a season ago and even the most decorated and ambitious teams suffer through troughs from time to time -- but the rot seems to go deeper than a run-of-the-mill funk.
The positive momentum heading into the 2015 NYCFC match now feels like the last gasp of an era. After the 5-1 rout that August, LA won just a single match the rest of the way, with its title defense ending in the knockout round against a Sounders team it had dominated for years. Bruce Arena jumped ship for the U.S. men's national team gig in November, and the club he left no longer looks certain of its standing.
In many ways, the rest of the league has caught up -- four clubs boasted a higher payroll when the MLS Players Union dropped its bi-annual salary release in April -- and no longer can LA rely solely upon its spending power to guarantee contention. It has talked a big game about shifting focus to its talented youth academy, but it hasn't fully committed to any kind of coherent blueprint, and the results of this season have been indicative of a club stuck between eras.
All of this could be dismissed as the natural ebb and flow of professional sports, if not for the upstart taking aim at the established power from its offices a few blocks west of Los Angeles' downtown skyscrapers.
The dynamic of LAFC's impending arrival adds an extra level of intrigue to Saturday's matchup. Where New York City FC was once cast as LA's East Coast equal, it now looms as the club's Ghost of Christmas Future. What NYCFC has accomplished in the Big Apple is exactly what the Galaxy should fear once LAFC joins up as an expansion club next season.
NYCFC currently exceeds its rival Red Bulls in attendance and sits five points up in the standings, having clinched the season rivalry series via wins both home and away. More crucially, NYCFC just seem to matter more. Yankee Stadium is far from ideal but is at least within the Five Boroughs, while the Red Bulls' lovely-but-oh-so-inconvenient home is out of sight and out of mind in Harrison, N.J.
It doesn't take many mental gymnastics to picture a similar phenomenon in Southern California come 2018. For all of the Galaxy's history and their record five MLS Cup titles, the StubHub Center requires a drive through forlorn suburban strip malls. It is not on public transport and is located on the campus of a state college.
LAFC's future Banc of California Stadium home may obnoxiously cater to the city's elite, steering into the skid of the region's stereotypes, but at least it's going to be right there. With a site next to the Coliseum, anybody coming into downtown from the south will be aware of its existence. The expansion club has legitimate ambitions, too, as evidenced by the arrival of Bob Bradley as the team's coach and Mexican international Carlos Vela as a designated player.
Once upon a time, the Galaxy dispatched New York City FC as a wannabe contender to their throne. Come Saturday, they'll face the avatar of the team that most threatens their standing in MLS.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.