There was no equivocation in LA Galaxy president Chris Klein.
“He was the obvious and the best choice,” Klein said at a Tuesday press conference introducing the next Galaxy head coach.
That choice was Curt Onalfo, promoted from within to serve as a philosophical trailhead in the post-Bruce Arena era, a man Klein believed in to his core, and a man he believed felt the same about the Galaxy organization, where his own son came through the academy.
Onalfo had the LA pedigree, too, as a Galaxy original in 1996 and a stout branch on Arena’s coaching tree since joining his staff in 2011. And when he was elevated in 2014 to the head coaching gig for LA Galaxy II, the club’s USL branch, he took to the position with gusto. In three years at the post, he guided the team colloquially called Los Dos to a 41-16-29 record and a USL final while positioning himself as a freewheeling attacking mind.
This is, of course, not Onalfo’s first MLS head coaching rodeo. He took the assistant gig in LA after compiling a combined 30-42-25 record as the head man in Kansas City and then D.C. from 2007-2010. He was eager to reassert his place after being dismissed midseason at both stops (Aug. 2009 in KC and Aug. 2010 in DC), which helps at least partly explain his motivation to succeed with Los Dos.
Development? Yes. Wins? Of course. Reestablishing himself as a head coach? Absolutely.
Before rejoining the Galaxy, Onalfo rested his reputation on solid if unremarkable teams that were defiantly difficult to play in the postseason. Neither of his 2007 or 2008 Kansas City teams finished with a positive goal differential, but both made deep postseason runs. Meanwhile, he wasn’t given that much time in D.C. after winning just three of his 18 games in charge and shuffling off to an assistant gig under the most respected coach in the American game.
Something, though, seemed to click into place in LA. Arena’s disciples have a way of following the deep furrow he plowed in terms of playing style, but Onalfo’s tactical reputation dovetailed noticeably from Arena’s once he took over Los Dos. Galaxy II developed a reputation as a swashbuckling side that pushed width, played free and encouraged its technical players – like Bradford Jamieson IV and Jaime Villarreal – to take on defenders. It became clear that wherever Onalfo ended up, he would not be a typical Arena acolyte. His particular brand of soccer was dropping fruit relatively far from the trunk.
The broader question for now, though, isn’t necessarily how Onalfo’s teams play. We’ll have those answers soon enough. It’s in the deeper tissue of their makeup as a franchise under a familiar but new banner. What will the Galaxy actually look like in what certainly has the look of an entirely new era in the Galaxy’s star-studded history?
I’ve said this before, but part of the shimmering beauty in Arena’s approach in LA was his unerring ability to cut out distractions and noise and simply focus on the gravely business of winning now. There was no distant horizon in Arena’s planning, no overt idealism in his lineups. In a theoretical sense, titles were always an arm’s length away in his reckoning, and he acquired players appropriately. He was always so unconcerned with long-term projects that his teams, usually among the oldest in the league, routinely looked like title contenders with a craggy precipice on the other end of the season. It is to his undying credit that he was able to use the formula to win an unprecedented three MLS Cups in four years.
It isn’t that Arena’s Galaxy were particularly uninterested in incorporating young players, but his pragmatism was ever on full display. If you were able to help the Galaxy win titles – whether you happened to be 21 or 35 – the man was never choosy. In this way the Galaxy under Arena came closer to replicating the philosophy of Europe’s mega-clubs than any MLS regime in history. And, for the most part, it worked.
There is of course a notable hitch in this plan. The Galaxy were on a continual treadmill, racing to keep up with a talented roster that nonetheless looked to be cobbled together like an aging sports car laboring forward with dozens of replacement parts. It worked because Arena held the thing together, but once he left and some of the aging wonders followed suit, a significant rebuild was always in the cards. And here we are. Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard are both gone alongside Arena, the Galaxy suddenly look like a team in need of some level of transformation.
This is the landscape Onalfo enters. And it would seem the Galaxy are already shifting gears to accommodate – or perhaps prod into action – its new sideline general.
Earlier this offseason, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that AEG, the team’s ownership group, wanted to shift off the team’s historical tendency to chase older Designated Player splashes like Steven Gerrard and David Beckham and take a slightly more conservative tack while emphasizing the homegrown talent the Galaxy have invested so much in. The club would still chase franchise-defining players. Just perhaps not at the same cost, or in the same age range.
Considering the Galaxy suddenly have Designated Player spots to burn, it’s an interesting time to be in Carson these days. Considering Vagenas and Onalfo, the men tasked with building the talent pipeline from academy to first team, are in charge, it's also an interesting time to be in the academy or with Los Dos.
Onalfo’s task is writ large on the region’s rapidly changing soccer landscape. It's impossible to ignore the rising boom of organizing drumbeats across town as LAFC marshals its lucrative forces in advance of its 2018 entry into the league. The Galaxy's post-Chivas USA window as the only professionally-sourced academy in Los Angeles is already done. LAFC has a fully operational U12 team in the Development Academy with more in the wings. The Galaxy are about to lose their first-team hegemony as well. No one is really sure what that means quite yet.
In sum, the world in which Onalfo enters leaves him with an enormous undertaking. Replacing a legend like Arena is impossible, but branding the team with his own successful prod is certainly not. And while the ground shifts underfoot, revealing perhaps a side of the Galaxy we’ve yet to see, Onalfo will help lead them into their new dawn. For better or worse.