The 2021 MLS regular season is officially over, culminating on Decision Day marking the end of the road for 13 MLS clubs ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. No more ambiguity: All focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
The LA Galaxy roared to a fast start in 2021. It was impressive given they had a new head coach and a bunch of new players, including several of whom hadn't arrived by opening day.
Greg Vanney seemed to fast-track the rebuild. But then Chicharito, who started the season spectacularly with 10 goals in his first 10 games, got hurt early in the summer. And the wheels started wobbling.
The Galaxy slipped from hoping for a home Round One game to fighting just to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs over the last month of the season, even long after Chicharito returned. They never got the momentum back. LA won twice after Aug. 14 – just two wins in their final 15 games. They still went into Decision Day controlling their own destiny, where a win would seal a playoff berth and a draw could be good enough if results went their way.
But results didn't go their way, thanks to some controversy and a last-gasp winner in Real Salt Lake's game against Sporting Kansas City. The Galaxy didn't take care of business at home, drawing Minnesota United 3-3 and missing the playoffs.
Despite the solid foundation, with a number of encouraging new players signed this year and Chicharito bouncing back fantastically after an awful debut season in MLS, there are a lot of questions around the Galaxy this winter.
Over the course of 2021, the Galaxy added 17 new players. It was a full-on rebuild.
Those 17 included a new DP (Kevin Cabral), a U22 Initiative signing (Dejan Joveljic) and at least six further expected starters (Jonathan Bond, Derrick Williams, Samuel Grandsir, Sega Coulibaly, Jorge Villafana, Rayan Raveloson). All of those guys will be back.
“We wanted to adapt our roster out of the old view, I guess, which is three senior DPs to a new version," Vanney told MLSsoccer.com in September of the big offseason. "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.”
It's a long way of saying last year was the big, busy offseason. With all of that foundational work done, led by Vanney taking over as head coach, expect LA to be much less active.
But there are also some question marks in the front office. General manager Dennis te Kloese looks all but certain to be leaving, as MLSsoccer.com has reported on Dutch club Feyenoord being the latest to try to sign him. He interviewed with Houston Dynamo FC and has received plenty of interest from Liga MX clubs, too.
"Less active" does not equate to "inactive," of course. Finishing below the playoff line, they'll obviously be in the market for improvements.
The group's core is largely set, but tweaks can be made. They should still have a U22 Initiative slot open (unless Efrain Alvarez's contract extension gives him that slot for next year, next to Julian Araujo and Joveljic). Some rotation guys could move on and free up cap assets as well.
Or if Mexican international midfielder Jonathan dos Santos leaves, LA would have another DP spot to utilize.
Vanney noted after the Decision Day draw that they need to be better defensively (and less naive). They conceded 54 goals this year and just one team that allowed 50 goals made the playoffs (Real Salt Lake). The question then becomes if improvements surface internally from tactical tweaks or if it's time for a new group. This year they had four new starters along the backline plus goalkeeper, with Araujo the only incumbent (and he wasn't a completely full-time starter before this year). Or will those improvements come externally via returning to the transfer market?
We'll know more about LA's thinking once they announce their end-of-season contract decisions, which should come relatively soon now that their season is over. And we'll know how much more room to maneuver they do or don't have.
Still, they have a solid foundation after last year's big offseason. They seem to have hit on a few starters. The roster as a whole is in a good spot, particularly if Chicharito continues the kind of production he delivered in 2021.
Depth and tactical flexibility are non-negotiable in modern-day MLS and the Galaxy have a roster with options to mix things up. But finding a system and formation to harness all the club's most talented players might be a challenge.
Vanney is most associated with playing a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system, but has been known to mix it up. He noted during his post-game press conference on Decision Day that Chicharito looks better with a second striker, hence why Cabral played more like one than a winger as the season went on.
The big question here is if Chicharito and Joveljic can not just co-exist in the same starting XI, but make each other better. Cabral seemed preferred there and Joveljic was an unused substitute in the club's final two regular-season games.
Sebastian Lletget can play across multiple positions, ditto for Alvarez. Where are they best set? Will we see more two-striker looks from the Galaxy next season? Is there enough defensive balance to deploy a lineup with Chicharito, Joveljic, Cabral and Grandsir? What pieces can be added to best fit their vision?