It’s hard to understate Arena’s importance to LA since he took over as head coach and GM of the club in August 2008. He inherited a team that finished tied for last in the league in 2008 and quickly engineered a dynasty, taking the Galaxy within a shootout of winning MLS Cup in 2009 before lifting the Supporters’ Shield in 2010, winning the Shield/Cup double in 2011 and claiming two more MLS Cups in 2012and 2014.
The last two seasons didn’t go exactly the way anyone in LA would’ve wanted, but even in their down years, Arena’s Galaxy were among the best in MLS. His departure on Tuesday to the US national team certainly didn’t shock LA, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a huge pair of shoes to fill this winter.
To replace him, the Galaxy could very well make two hires. Several executives I’ve spoken to from around the league think LA president Chris Klein will hire a separate head coach and a GM to replace Arena. A couple of names I was told to keep an eye on? LA Galaxy II head coach Curt Onalfo and Galaxy VP of soccer operations Pete Vagenas.
A longtime Arena disciple and former head coach of Kansas City and D.C. United, Onalfo has led LA Galaxy II since they began play in USL in 2014. "Los Dos" have been very successful in their three years of existence, qualifying for the playoffs every season, reaching the USL Championship in 2015 and finishing with the third most points in the league across their three campaigns.
While Onalfo has impressed with Galaxy II, his prior stints leading MLS clubs didn’t go as well. He served as Kansas City’s head coach from the start of the 2007 season through August 2009, leading the club to the Conference Championship in 2007 and Conference Semifinals in 2008. Kansas City were middling in 2009, however, and Onalfo was dismissed (and replaced) by Peter Vermes after a 6-0 loss to Dallas on Aug. 3 put the Wizards in sixth in the East, ending his Kansas City tenure with a 27-29-22 regular-season record.
He landed in D.C. the following year, but his stint as United head coach was as brief as it was disappointing. Onalfo was fired by D.C. one year and one day after he was axed by Kansas City after compiling a 3-12-3 record in 18 matches in charge.
A former Galaxy captain and a member of LA’s 2002 and 2005 MLS Cup championship teams, Vagenas has been working in the club’s front office since 2013, when he was hired as director of the Galaxy academy. He was promoted to his current position as LA’s VP of soccer operations in January, a position in which he worked in conjunction with Arena to oversee soccer ops for the Galaxy first team, Galaxy II and Galaxy academy.
Both Onalfo and Vagenas have deep roots with the Galaxy, and notably, both are fully immersed in the club’s youth and reserve setups. Under Onalfo, Galaxy II have served as a proving ground for several on-loan Galaxy Homegrown players and other youngsters who have later gone on to sign and contribute to LA’s first-team, including defenders Daniel Steres and Dave Romney.
Fifteen academy products signed with the Galaxy first team or Galaxy II when the youth system was being led by Vagenas, who also oversaw the development of the Galaxy’s Blended Learning Program, which provides a full high school education at StubHub Center for LA academy players.
Onalfo and Vagenas are both steeped in the Galaxy’s culture and are both known quantities to the club’s higher-ups. LA will no doubt look at external candidates for their head coach and general manager positions, but if they want to stay in-house – and potentially make a shift toward a more youth-centric model for their first-team – then Onalfo and Vagenas both bear watching.
Cabrera takes the reins in Houston
We’re nearly four weeks into the Wilmer Cabrera reign in Houston, and the Dynamo’s new coach is busy taking stock of what he’s inherited.
Cabrera was hired by Houston on Oct. 28 after spending the 2016 season with the club’s hybrid USL affiliate, Rio Grande Valley FC. He takes over a squad that finished last in the West in 2016, and is tied with San Jose for the second-fewest points in MLS over the last three seasons.
The cupboard is looking pretty bare, as Houston failed to effectively replace some of the key, aging pieces on the teams that made runs to MLS Cup in 2011and 2012. Apart from promising young forward Mauro Manotas, we know the ceiling of most of the biggest pieces on the Dynamo roster. We also know, as currently constructed, that the group isn’t good enough to challenge in the West.
Cabrera knows that, too, and is busy working with Dynamo GM Matt Jordan to upgrade his team this winter. The club are betting on the former Chivas USA head coach to make the transition as smooth as possible, something that was a bit of an issue as the team moved from former manager Dom Kinnear to Owen Coyle, who left the team last May after being brought on to replace Kinnear following the 2014 season.
“The Dynamo is a winning franchise, but we need to go back to the roots,” Cabrera told me over the phone last Friday. “We need to go back to competing, to building a team – a team that has changed. In my opinion, one of the things that has affected the team is they won, but they didn’t handle the transition. They didn’t replace, little by little, the players with some other players that continue the same formula. And the players got old, the players got traded or changed and then the coach left the team. And then it’s some new coaches, new style, so it hasn’t been a good transition.”
To do that, Cabrera said that he and the club are looking for players at every position. Houston likely won’t spend the same sort of money on Designated Players as some of the bigger teams in the league, but the Dynamo should have the space to make impact signings this offseason, whether they’re DPs or TAM-level players.
Torres and Cabrera have a history together, with the Mexican youth international scoring 15 goals in 29 games under Cabrera with Chivas USA in 2014. Considered one of the most promising young players in the league that season, Torres made a big money move to Houston ahead of the 2015 campaign. To say he's been a disappointment with the Dynamo would be an understatement. He still hasn’t scored in 22 games across two seasons with the club, bouncing back and forth between Houston and Mexico before being sent on loan to Cruz Azul in September.
He’s played sparingly for the Mexico City side, suffering an injury and making just three Liga MX appearances for the team, who finished 14th and missed the playoffs in the Apertura campaign. He did recently feature in a friendly between Cruz Azul and Pumas at the Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium, but – cruelly – scored an own goal in a 1-0 loss.
As I reported at the time of the deal, Cruz Azul have a $2.5 million option to buy Torres when his loan ends at the end of the year. If they decline the option, Torres will return to the Dynamo. Cabrera said that Torres called him after he was named head coach and that he met with the striker after taking in the Cruz Azul-Pumas friendly.
“We have a good relationship, good communication and he is positive,” Cabrera said. “He’s recovered from injury and now he’s playing and active, and he’s motivated to continue playing. The only thing right now is it’s not my decision, it’s not Cubo’s decision, it’s [Cruz Azul’s] decision for his future.
“If Cruz Azul passes, he has to come back. If he comes back, he told me he’s going to be 100 percent ready and working to try to win his spot with the team.”
Cabrera also said that he’s spoken with Beasley and that the club is in negotiations with the longtime US international. Beasley, 34, told reporters in October that his gut feeling was that he would “probably not” return to the Dynamo in 2017 because the club hadn’t entered into contract talks with him.
“You have the possibility to have a player that has played in four World Cups. With that experience and with him being the best left back in the league, it would be fantastic [to have him back],” Cabrera said. “I explained that to him. Now, is that going to happen? I don’t know. I can’t do anything because that decision is going between the negotiations between him and his agents and the club and I cannot interfere with that. But, as a coach, I would love to have DaMarcus Beasley back in Houston, because for me he’s the best left back in MLS.”
Kaval makes Quakes transition, updates GM search
The San Jose Earthquakes had a relatively significant shakeup at the top of their organization last week, when they announced that club president Dave Kaval will expand his role to become president of MLB’s Oakland Athletics. The A’s are owned by Quakes owner John Fisher, who is taking over as A’s managing partner from fellow Quakes owner Lew Wolff, who will sell his stake in the Oakland team.
In addition to his new duties with the A’s, Kaval will remain on as president of the Quakes and will continue leading the club’s search for a new general manager. Kaval, who has been with San Jose since 2010, will no longer run the day-to-day business operations for the Quakes. Those duties will transfer to longtime team employee Jared Shawlee, who was promoted to COO as part of last week’s move.
Kaval, who led the Quakes through the entire process of building Avaya Stadium, will be charged with building the A’s a new stadium in Oakland. He’ll maintain offices in both Oakland and San Jose, though it’s fair to expect he’ll spend most of his time with the A’s once he settles into his new role.
Kaval will remain on the MLS Board of Governors and will continue to oversee higher-level decisions in San Jose, including the club’s ongoing GM search. Speaking with him last week, Kaval was confident the Quakes won’t have any hiccups under the new arrangement and was hopeful that his presence at both clubs could lead to partnerships in sponsorship, community initiatives and media and merchandise ventures.
“The areas where [the Quakes] need to focus on are tweaking our operational plan and fan experience and that’s something that Jared Shawlee I think will do an amazing job of as COO,” Kaval said. “And then secondly, focusing on the on field product and getting a great general manager who can lead that effort.
“So for me, as the president of the Quakes, it’s to focus on strategic issues; hiring the team out and having the right people in place, still serving on the Board of Governors for Major League Soccer and trying to grow soccer in the United States. I think the role has shifted and the responsibilities have shifted in a way that makes it work across both properties.”
Perhaps more pressing for San Jose fans is the club’s current search for a GM. After determining they weren’t totally satisfied with the candidates they’d been considering in their own search, San Jose, who dismissed longtime GM John Doyle in August, announced in October that they’d hired search firm Nolan Partners to help identify candidates.
Kaval, who has interviewed candidates from North America, Latin America and Europe, told me that Nolan Partners’ senior management will meet with the Quakes on Dec. 7 in San Francisco to narrow the field to four or five finalists.
“That’s going to be a key strategic meeting to discuss [whether] we are going to look south to Latin America for a candidate, are we going to look more to Europe or to the US, and making some big decisions in that way,” Kaval said.
Kaval expects to conduct a final “fit interview” after the Dec. 7 meeting, at which point San Jose will make their decision. They’re still hoping to announce a hire by the end of the year, but Kaval admitted there’s a chance a new GM won’t be in place until early January.
Until then, interim GM Chris Leitch – himself a candidate for the full-time job – and head coach Dominic Kinnear are running San Jose’s soccer operations. They’ll see the club through the Expansion Draft next month and the SuperDraft in January and continue scouting for new players through the offseason, with Leitch in Europe this week looking at potential targets.
Timbers keep it in the family
The Portland Timbers kept two of their retiring players in the family last week, when they announced that Ned Grabavoy and Jack Jewsbury – both of whom recently ended long MLS careers – will stay with the club in full-time roles.
Grabavoy, a 13-year MLS veteran, has started as the club’s director of scouting and recruitment. Jewsbury, who just wrapped a 14-year playing career, will stay with the club in a less traditional role for a former player, serving as the Timbers’ director of business development.
Both Grabavoy and Jewsbury started their new jobs last week, kick-starting the often tricky process for former players adjusting to life off the field. Grabavoy, who will manage the Timbers’ team of scouts, is already deep into scouting for the SuperDraft and identifying potential international targets for head coach Caleb Porter, GM Gavin Wilkinson and the Timbers’ first team.
“From the short amount of time I’ve been going at it, it’s different. It’s difficult, to be honest with you,” Grabavoy told me over the phone last week. “When you’re looking and viewing players from any which league, you have to understand that there are so many different factors that go into things. Ultimately, you can love a player – and I’ve certainly seen tons of players so far that are great players – but will that person or player translate into MLS, will that player translate and work in terms of the salary cap, does that player positionally and tactically fit into the characteristics of what the coaching staff wants?”
Jewsbury, who will serve as a project lead for the club’s corporate partnerships team and as an official ambassador for the Timbers’ community platform, is easing into his transition a bit more. I asked the longtime midfielder, who has a degree in business from Saint Louis University, what he thinks of what I view as a positive trend of an increasing number of ex-MLS players moving into full-time roles within the league after their playing careers.
“I hope it continues,” he said. “I think guys through their experience and through their time in the league, they realize how an organization, how a team can be successful and how they can bring those experiences to the coaching side or over to the business side, in my instance. I think it’ll continue to be important, especially as the league continues to grow…. Hopefully the guys that have been a big part of that growth continue to stay in the game.”