By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
One of the defining characteristics of storied franchises such the Lakers, Celtics, or Yankees is that even in times of struggle and departure from their usual dominance they've managed to come back around, regroup, and use new ways to find success. Usually that's due to executive leadership and deep pockets.
The success of the Galaxy hasn’t just been painted in the last eight years. The organization experienced great success in MLS 1.0, winning the Supporter’s Shield in 1998, the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2000 (the second and last MLS club to win a CONCACAF tournament), both the Supporters Shield and MLS cup in 2002, and MLS Cup again in 2005. After some down years, they rebounded and won the cup and Supporter's Shield in 2011, then MLS Cup again in 2012 and 2014. They were dominant, struggled, and returned to dominance. In 2017 they struggled again. After one of the most disappointing seasons in team history president Chris Klein has been asked to rebuild one of the most storied organizations in MLS for the second consecutive season.
2017 in Review
After the departures of Bruce Arena, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan at the conclusion of 2016, Klein turned the reins over to Pete Vagenas and promoted LA Galaxy II head coach Curt Onalfo to first team head coach. While his hand was forced by the departures, it seemed to signal a changing of the guard and a new movement towards youth and the utilization of internal talent.
Unfortunately, the execution of the new look took a wrong turn as the roster construction ended with a series of mixed and match parts which were never able to fit together. A youthful attacking squad built around Giovani dos Santos never found the form it needed, and dos Santos didn't play as well has he had after arriving in 2016.
Youngsters Jose Villareal, Raul Mendiola, Bradford Jamison IV and even once-proven attacker Jack McInerney failed to accrue much playing time. They combined for only 1,700 minutes, with the greatest portion coming from Jamison IV, who led the group with 984. The "youth movement" never got its chance.
But despite early season losses of Robbie Rogers and Sebastian Lletget to injury, the Galaxy entered July with with 1.38 points per game, ahead of the Quakes, Sounders, Rapids, Minnesota and RSL. But even with their place in the standings, it was clear they weren't clicking. They looked poor and the numbers backed that up. PDO had them cresting over the 1000 mark while they sat at almost negative four expected goal differential.
The numbers finally caught up with them in the summer as regression fell upon them. In June they only brought home five out of a possible twelve points, and July was even worse. They dropped five straight games, which unsurprisingly ended in the long-rumored firing of Onalfo.
The organization brought back Sigi Schmid (who coached them from 1999-2004) to stop the bleeding... which didn’t happen. The team managed a draw at home against Schmid’s former club Seattle, but then spiraled further down the table by dropping another four games in a row. During that streak their best defender, Jelle Van Damme, forced his way out of the team via a transfer back to Belgium.
Schmid’s team at no point really looked improved over Onalfo’s. In fact, comparing the two coaches, Sigi's team was far worse than Onalfo's in terms of expected goal differential. The Galaxy were worse under Schmid both on a per game basis and in total xGD, despite the fact he coached four fewer games. There was no month, regardless of the coach, were the team posted a positive expected goal differential.
Overall from an expected goals perspective it was a plain rotten season-- looking at it historically there have been worse teams...but not many. The team wasn't just bad defensively, they were one of the worst defenses in our dataset (back to 2011). That's comparable to the 2012/13 Chivas USA teams, which helps define just how horrible a season it was.
But it wasn't just on the defense. The attack, one that included both Gio dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes, did not offer enough punch either. Dos Santos did manage to generate over 14 expected goal chains which was second on the team, but ranks only 43rd in MLS. Zardes was obviously much worse.
Newcomer Romain Alessandrini led the team in chances created, expected goals and expected assists. He was everything the team could have hoped for and more. He was the lone bright spot in all the darkness for LA, finishing 13th in MLS in xG+xA and 19th in xGC. Despite a Galaxy team that lacked attacking support and seemed to have mismatched talent, Alessandrini was the beacon of hope for 2018.
2018 Roster Rebuild
Their best moment of the offseason came when L.A. was able to land Ola Kamara from Columbus. Arguably the most underrated player in MLS, he's an expected goals god, finishing 3th in the league for xG in 2016 and 2nd in 2017.
Jørgen Skjelvik was signed from the best team in Norway (Rosenborg BK) after winning the title three straight years and their version of the double in two out of three. He has Europa and Champions League experience, earning 118 appearances for the team. He should plug some of the hole left by Van Damme's departure last year.
They also brought in Rolf Feltscher, a veteran of the Venezuela national team with 18 caps. He’s had a rather tremulous time in Europe, bouncing from team to team without finding minutes. His longest stint at a club was at MSV Duisburg in Bundesliga 2 when they were relegated to Bundesliga 3. He also made fewer than 10 appearances each at Zaragoza, Getafe, Parma, and Padova, among others. While you can point to his time with Venezuela as a positive indicator of talent, I worry about his track record and I think it’ll be really interesting to see what Sigi Schmid is capable of getting out of him.
The keeper situation is pretty much what it is. LA has put all of it’s eggs in the David Bingham basket, which is neither terrible nor great. But considering the horrible season he had last year I’m surprised they haven’t added someone with more experience behind him. Brian Sylvestre looks like his backup.
The defense has improved as a whole, though anything would be an improvement from last year. Skjlvik coupled with Daniel Steres, who I think of as a poor man’s Matt Hedges, should make for a solid tandem in the middle. Meanwhile Dave Romney, Michael Ciani and Hillard-Arce should provide replacement level (perhaps even slightly better) depth.
My biggest worry for this backline is Ashley Cole and his inevitable injury. Surprisingly, he had the highest xBuildup on the team, showing he’s a big part of moving the ball from the defense into attack. But after back-to-back seasons of over 2,000 minutes for a 37 year old who has over 600 games in their career, I’m not sure the Galaxy are making the best gamble. My assumption is Romney will take over left back in a pinch, but it’s a bit surprising that LA hasn’t been able to fill this hole with someone more experienced or better to take up the role.
The Galaxy also have home grown player Hugo Arellano who could have a couple opportunities to see the pitch this year either in Regular Season play or during Open Cup play.
Midfield is very obviously the deepest spot for the team, with Jona dos Santos and Perry Kitchen starting next to each other in a type of 4-4-1-1. I’’ll be interested to see how Schmid balances Baggio Husidic, Servando Carrasco and João Pedro as depth in the central part of the field.
Alessandrini has the right side locked down, while Chris Pontius and Ema Boateng will battle it out for minutes on the left side until Sebastian Lletget is done recovering from his foot injury last spring.
Kamara has just punished teams the last couple of years in Columbus and brought his talents to Carson this off-season. He's the starter and will be an interesting fit in front of Gio dos Santos. Kamara isn’t really a back to the goal striker and isn't going to do a lot of hold up play. He’s a good passer and may help Gio create more chances. That said, he’s not going to pass up any chances inside the box. Kamara is the best true striker the team has had since Robbie Keane retired, and we should know early in the season if he and Gio will mesh.
Plenty of the offense will come down the wing from Alessandrini, and his crosses should make for a devastating combo with Kamara that isn't dependent upon Gio but still allows Gio to be himself. After Schmid’s time with Dempsey in Seattle, he might be just the guy to make things click with the elder dos Santos brother.
Of course, the elephant in the room is The Zlatan. At this stage all we have are rumors, and it's been a couple weeks since any news on him. It would be a magnificent signing should the Galaxy be able to swing the deal, though the Swede is 36 and still nursing a knee injury from last season. Considering the delays already and questions about his health, it's difficult to say to what degree he would impact the team on the field. Obviously, even as approaches his 40s, he's one of the most unique and talented individuals in the world, and he'd be a great signing for just about any team with the cachet to reel him in. But his current state of health makes it difficult to even project the significance in the roster for 2018, and what that would mean for Kamara.
I’m still not sold that this team is good enough defensively. Even if the Galaxy are good or even great on the attacking side (which still has its own set of question marks), this could be another bottom of the table season if the defense isn't fixed.
Last year was a terrible year for the defensive side of this club and the team only replaced two of the four back line. One of those replacement choices still has question marks of his own, and Ashley Cole is nearly due to re-up his AARP membership. It’s not hard to see this defensive side folding in upon itself once more as one of the worst in the league. Should that happen and the attack still doesn't get figured it out, this could be another long season at the bottom.
But there's reason for optimism. Bobby Warshaw took a lot of heat earlier this month for saying that they could be one of the top teams of the Western Conference. But Major League Soccer is a fickle beast and it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for this team to do a 180 and compete for the number one seed.
Still, I think a lot (possibly everything) needs to go right for them to get back to the top. LA has improved their attack and they've seemingly fortified all parts of their starting roster. They're going to play differently, and it's easier to see them returning to the Galaxy of old than the Galaxy of 2017. I can’t envision a season where they end up competing with Toronto for the Supporter’s Shield, but I certainly think they'll be competing for a playoff spot.