Shortly after taking over as LA Galaxy head coach last January, Greg Vanney sat down with general manager Dennis te Kloese and others as the club's braintrust plotted their next moves.
Their mission? To engineer a turnaround and get the Galaxy back where assume they'll be – a club that's quick to remind they've won the most MLS Cups (5) in league history – with a former player-turned-manager coming home after a tremendously successful run with Toronto FC. It was a big opportunity for Vanney, a big project.
The team had plenty of flexibility this winter.
There was a Designated Player spot open, a number of international spots to tinker with, the new U22 Initiative taking effect and just 13 players under contract as the offseason began. Vanney, te Kloese and the rest laid out their goals for the offseason, what to prioritize and target.
The Galaxy would eventually sign 17 new players this year, six of which came internally and the other 11 came from MLS or elsewhere. It was a true rebuild. Of those 11, conspicuously, four came from France and all were likely slated to be starters.
Kevin Cabral, Samuel Grandsir, Sega Coulibaly and Rayan Raveloson arrived in Los Angeles before the close of the Primary Transfer Window. With four key players coming from one market that the new head coach has plenty of experience, contacts and networks in, deductive reasoning would lead those on the outside to believe the Galaxy targeted the French system. It had been widely reported that many French clubs were still hurting financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more so than others in Europe due to a TV deal falling through. The French market would be an intriguing one to find value and market inefficiencies in, a system renowned for its player development.
But it wasn't quite like that.
“You know, it really wasn’t (a specific decision to target France)" Vanney told MLSsoccer.com. “There were a number of players from South America – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay – whose names we put down as early priorities. The profiles of the players drives where we look. They could come from anywhere in the world, we’re just trying to be specific about where they are in the team.”
The situation in France certainly didn't hurt, either. Coulibaly and Raveloson were signed with their contracts expiring this summer, while Grandsir was allowed to leave Monaco for free. Cabral was the only player the club paid a transfer fee for, one of around $6 million.
“It does help, obviously, that current circumstances in France made it possible to compete for these players," te Kloese said. "I think it’s a true challenge for players who have an important option to continue their career in Europe, to make them engaged, make them come to MLS and to us. That’s a big credit to our scouting and recruiting.”
French focus or no French focus, their offseason plan has worked quite well as 2021 has unfolded. In a season they entered with little expectation as Vanney's project got underway, the Galaxy have been among the best in the Western Conference, sitting fourth on 36 points with 12 matches left to play.
The Galaxy had a few aims. Their defense was obviously a concern, conceding the second-most goals in MLS last year en route to missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. They had previously missed the playoffs just three times in their first 21 seasons. On a macro view, Vanney also wanted the club to get younger, more athletic and deeper.
The club also wanted to maximize the salary cap and roster rules. One way to save allocation money is to add players with no acquisition costs, predominantly free transfers or free agents.
“I think (targeting) players as they’re ending contracts is very interesting," te Kloese said. "Players who can have an impact in this league, with all the rules tied into the salary cap, it’s difficult to come up with transfer fees. So building transfer free players into your roster, with the knowledge Greg has in the French league, makes it very interesting for us to go there.”
France wasn't the only market where LA found what they were looking for. Acquisitions of Jonathan Bond (West Brom) and Derrick Williams (Blackburn) came without transfer fees, as well as for veteran midfielder Victor Vazquez (free agent). Jorge Villafana was acquired in a trade with the Portland Timbers, swapping first round 2021 MLS SuperDraft selections in the process.
Another focus was getting younger with their DPs. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Jonathan dos Santos were locked in for 2021, but they had a third spot open after Cristian Pavon's loan expired. Their third DP spot would be key to how else the roster could be constructed. If they signed another senior player, they would only be able to use one U22 Initiative slot. If they signed a young DP, they would get three U22 Initiative slots.
“We wanted to adapt our roster out of the old view, I guess, which is three senior DPs to a new version," Vanney said. "A mix of senior DPs, youth DPs and youth fund. That would help us get younger but also get deeper. We wanted more quality throughout the roster to create competition.”
More younger players will also open the club to more outbound transfers down the line.
“We wanted to create some variability in our roster as well, in terms of players who we could potentially have options with," Vanney said. "Sell them or keep them. The Galaxy, on the DP level, have been a consumer of DPs. But at some point you need variability, some guys who you could sell. We wanted variance in stages of career.”
With rising talents Julian Araujo and Efrain Alvarez already on the team, and each player signing contract extensions this season, the Galaxy imported key young players like Cabral and Serbian international Dejan Joveljic. Joveljic was signed with a U22 Initiative spot, meaning his $4 million transfer fee doesn't count against the cap.
While MLS has grown accustomed to signing highly talented young players from South America, it isn't too common for players like Cabral and Joveljic to leave Europe for MLS. Joveljic was playing for Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt, while Cabral excelled in the French second tier. Both players very easily could have stayed in Europe, worked up the ladder and developed in a more traditional way for players of their pedigree.
“I really do believe the perception of MLS is growing," Vanney said. "I spoke to somebody recently, they’re saying when they speak to European GMs and people in the market, they know the young players coming through the market. In the past, they didn’t pay much attention. Now, they can tell you the top 25 young Americans and Canadians coming through MLS.”
One day, Joveljic and Cabral will expect to be back in Europe at a higher level than when they departed. They decided playing for the Galaxy in MLS was a great route to get there.
“For young European players, I think it’s positive for us and MLS that they come here," te Kloese said. "To keep developing, they’re young players. At some point they may catch an eye and go back (to Europe). It’s positive they made the chance to represent us and the future will bring whatever work they put into it. … There are a lot of eyes on MLS at the moment, a lot of interest in the players.”