CARSON, Calif. – They called it the “Miracle at Bonney” in California's capital, but for LA Galaxy II, it seemed more like thievery.
The Galaxy's reserve team's first season in the third-tier USL was halted one step from the title game when the Sacramento Republic, en route to the championship, rallied from a two-goal deficit for a 3-2 victory on two late penalty kicks and a stoppage-time free kick.
It's served as a prod in year two for Los Dos, who get their chance to play for a trophy in Friday night's USL final in Rochester, NY, where they'll face a Rochester Rhinos side that has lost just once in 30 games while conceding only 15 goals.
Winning championships isn't Galaxy II's aim, but the opportunity to do so means so much to head coach Curt Onalfo and his players.
“We've put a lot of effort and resources into this project,” said Onalfo, a former Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United head coach who joined Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena's staff in 2011. “Last year we felt like we positioned ourselves to do the same thing, and we felt really kind of robbed up in Sacramento. So that's kind of been motivating us all year to get better. And we're really excited for the challenge in Rochester and playing in a USL final.
“Our project has a lot of objectives. First and foremost, develop our players, bridge the gap between our academy [and the first team], bring first-team guys back from injury, keep first-team guys fresh, and there's so many boxes we have to check. To also be able to position ourselves to win – because that's what the Galaxy does – we're really proud of that. It shows we've put a lot of effort into it, and the guys are responding.”
Getting so far, perhaps winning some silverware – what does it say about the Galaxy II initiative's progress in its second season? Plenty. And not a whole lot.
“I don't think any of us are on the edge of our seats, looking at the outcome [of the final],” Arena said. “It's not going to make or break anything, but we think it's significant that they've achieved and gone to where they want to go. But the true test of that program is going to be how many of those players we can move forward [to the first team].”
That's the real success, and there has been progress. Rookie defender Dave Romney used 18 games with Los Dos to earn a call-up to the first team in July, and did well enough in two friendlies and a loss in Houston to win a Galaxy contract in early August.
“It gave me so much more confidence, gave me a lot more, like, skill,” said Romney, who was undrafted out of the University of San Francisco. “I learned a lot in that short span with the IIs, so I don't know if I would have made it if I was in preseason with the first team. [It was much easier] getting those 15-20 games under your belt, then slowly getting worked into the first team rather than initially just thrown into the fire, and then you have two weeks to prove yourself, and then you're out.”
“I don't think it's much different [from the first year], quite frankly. It's the same thing,” said Onalfo. “The only difference is we've had less first-team involvement this year. There hasn't been as many players coming down to us, so we've used more academy guys and we've used more of our signed Galaxy II guys.
“I think we're better at it now, just because Bruce and I have been at it now for two years. What's different is all these players are just a little better now. The environment's good, the motivation is there, the competition is there with the league. I think we're continually trying to create an environment as close to the first team as we can, so the guys can make that jump. There's a lot of players making a case for themselves.”
Onalfo says there are “10-plus players pushing to be on that first team.”
Foremost among them is Ariel Lassiter, the son of former MLS star Roy Lassiter, who has scored 15 goals – including three in three postseason games – while playing primarily on the flank. He's been able to play at his natural position up front with the late-season addition of Bryan Olivera and Raul Mendiola's return from a concussion.
“He's a constant threat, and he's so fast, he brings a different dimension to our frontline,” Onalfo said.
Jack McBean, who was dropped from the first team to a Galaxy II contract this year, has grown massively as a target striker.
“He does a lot of things that go unnoticed,” Onalfo said. “He turns bad balls into good balls. He holds the ball well, which enables our attack to get forward, and he passes well.”
Who else has impressed?
French midfielder Andre Auras, who spent preseason with the first team, and center back Daniel Steres, Galaxy II's captain, who played with the first team in July. Onalfo says he's pleased with everybody on his roster.
Some 17 first-teamers have seen time with Los Dos this season – Mendiola and Oscar Sorto have been regulars, and defender Tommy Meyer and midfielders Kenney Walker and Ignacio Maganto are in Rochester – and a revolving roster has meant that consistency sometimes wanes.
The Galaxy II went 14-11-3 after dropping six of their last nine regular-season games, then have swept through three playoff foes, starting with a road victory over Sacramento, on an Olivera penalty kick.
Onalfo also has given time to five Galaxy Academy players – Hugo Arellano, Malcolm Jones, Rey Ortiz, Ethan Zubak, and his son, Christian Onalfo – and the plan is for the team to get younger.
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“We've gotten a number of our young players some experience, but, ultimately, that team will be a team that's probably all players out of our academy,” Arena said. “That should be one of our goals one day. So we've got a way to go to get the program exactly where we want it to be, [and winning] trophies isn't part of it.”
But the trophies sure look nice in StubHub Center's Champions Lounge, and Onalfo and Co. really hope to bring another home Friday.
“It would mean so much to the players who have put so much effort into this ...,” Onalfo said. “They've shown from day one that this means the world to them, and us being the first [club in MLS] to bring a second team into a USL setting, pioneering it, I think it would only be justice for our organization to be the first [from MLS] to win it.”