The LA Galaxy have dismissed Under-19 academy head coach Brian Kleiban, a club spokesperson confirmed to MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday.
The decision to fire Kleiban comes just one week after U.S. U-20 international and former Galaxy academy standout Ulysses Llanez completed his move to German Bundesliga club VFL Wolfsburg. Llanez is the second top prospect to move from LA to Germany in recent months following the departure of ex-Galaxy standout and 2018 US Soccer young male player of the year Alex Mendez to SC Freiburg. Both Llanez and Mendez are currently playing with youth teams of their German clubs.
Sources confirmed that LA offered Llanez and Mendez MLS contracts, but that both players turned them down to pursue options in Europe. According to a report last fall from Keith Costigan that was later confirmed by MLSsoccer.com, both agreed to move to Germany in October. Mendez signed with Freiburg at that time; Llanez had to wait to join Wolfsburg until he turned 18 on April 2.
Llanez and Mendez have a long history with Kleiban and his brother Gary, who, according to what LA GM Dennis te Kloese told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday, serves as the agent for both players. Brian Kleiban first coached Llanez, Mendez and current Galaxy first team attacker Efrain Alvarez in the academy of Chivas USA. Kleiban was hired by LA after Chivas folded in 2014 and brought Llanez, Mendez and Alvarez with him to the Galaxy.
Though he wasn’t hired by the Galaxy until December, two months after Llanez and Mendez agreed to move to Germany, te Kloese told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday that he’s tried to bring both players back to LA. Asked if either were receptive to returning to California, te Kloese – who met Llanez and Mendez, both of whom are eligible to represent Mexico as well as the US, during his tenure with the Mexican Football Federation – said “maybe” the players are but that “their agent hasn’t been.”
The interview with te Kloese ended several hours before MLSsoccer.com received a tip on Tuesday evening that the Galaxy had fired Brian Kleiban. The club spokesperson confirmed the dismissal on Wednesday morning but declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the decision or to say if Gary Kleiban’s involvement in moving Llanez and Mendez to Germany played any role in it.
MLSsoccer.com reached out to Gary Kleiban but he had not responded prior to publishing.
“They’re very good players. Very, very good players with very bright futures,” he said. “When I first got here, I didn’t know what really happened, so the first thing I tried to do was get my head around it, organize it. I’ve always openly expressed my interest to them. If they want to be here, then I think they … would be in a situation that they could compete for a first team spot instead of being on a youth team. I think hopefully our project and everything that we do would prepare them for maybe the next step, instead of taking that next step already. Now, obviously with the decision being taken, maybe things happened before I got here, I don’t know what the decision making [process] was and exactly how it ended up, but there was no fair, I think, willingness to come back. Maybe they want to take their time and I’m very, very respectful to their decision. I don’t want to make too big of an issue of it. They’re two very, very good players so we’ll hear from them in the future for sure.”
While te Kloese didn’t comment on the decision to fire Kleiban, he did speak at length about the fact that the Galaxy lost both Mendez and Llanez for free. He made it clear that he feels losing talented players for nothing is a major issue, but he put the onus on clubs to create youth environments and make decisions so that they’re not in that position.
“I think it’s obviously a problem. If you look at it from another perspective, for example an ownership perspective or a club perspective, you invested a lot of resources into producing players and then they can just go somewhere without even saying thank you, I think, first, I think that’s not right,” he said. “But, second of all, I think we need to be aware of what our situations are, who the talented players are and be very active on that end. We need to provide the best opportunities so that everybody would think twice on leaving here, and actually the players that would leave here are the players that wouldn’t have an opportunity. I think that is something that is a challenge for us, and I think that is something that we need to live up to.”
Achieving that will require improving every facet of the Galaxy academy, an effort that will include replacing Kleiban at the U-19 level and hiring an academy director, a position that te Kloese is interviewing candidates for but hasn't been filled for over two years. The most important step will come at the professional level, however. As te Kloese stated repeatedly on Tuesday, the Galaxy need to prove to their young players that turning pro with LA is a viable first step in their careers. Despite operating in one of the most talent rich regions of the country, the Galaxy have historically struggled to produce impactful Homegrown Players. If their kids are good enough, te Kloese said, they need to give them a chance.
They’re starting to do a bit more of that under te Kloese and first-year head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Both Alvarez, 16, and 17-year-old defender Julian Araujo, who doesn’t count as a Homegrown Player but did spend time in the Galaxy academy, have made first team appearances this season. One other current academy player, Kobe Hernandez-Foster, has appeared for LA Galaxy II in USL in 2019, while two others, Adam Saldana and Oscar Cervantes, have made the 18 for Los Dos. Several other academy grads are with Galaxy II on fully professional USL deals.
“One of the things that stands out most is that young players see that there’s an actual opportunity and it’s not something that’s only discussed or that’s only put into like a promotional role, but there is actually an opportunity,” said te Kloese. “If you’re good enough, of course. I don’t think that any big club in the world would say, ‘Hey, we’re going all young now,’ but if there’s an opportunity for a young player, it doesn’t matter what the age is. I think it makes sense for our club. With the area we’re in and some of the talent that obviously comes out of the area, this should be a place where is an opportunity for these players to be part of a first team setup.”