CARSON, Calif. -- The LA Galaxy were on their way to a third straight year without the playoffs when Bruce Arena took charge in August 2008. He began rebuilding the roster and establishing a distinct culture once the offseason arrived, had the team in the MLS Cup final the following season, won a Supporters' Shield the next two seasons, and went on a run of three MLS Cup titles in four years.
Now it's Sigi Schmid's turn, and the aims aren't all that different.
The Galaxy endured the roughest of their 22 seasons last year, inaugurating the post-Arena era with a thin roster that couldn't hang when injuries started piling up, spiraling to the bottom of the MLS table with an 8-18-8 record. LA went 3-9-5 at StubHub Center and won just twice in their last 19 games.
Schmid, who took charge late last July, and Galaxy brass set about revamping the team as soon as the final whistle on 2017 sounded, bringing in veterans at spots all over the field and building needed depth nearly everywhere. It's meant to make LA contenders again, immediately.
“We want to make the playoffs,” Schmid said ahead of the Galaxy's opener Sunday night at home against the Portland Timbers (10 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes in US | TSN2 in Canada). “And, obviously, once you make the playoffs, then you can win silverware. So our objective is to try and win some silverware at the end of the year. But the No. 1 objective is to make the playoffs.”
That's more of a starting point. The Galaxy have been MLS's signpost club for at least a decade, and that's a position nobody within wants to concede.
“When you do a season like last season, you have to be better,” said winger Romain Alessandrini, LA's one true standout in 2017. “We are the LA Galaxy. We have to be at the top, and we have to get better day after day.”
The Galaxy, to do so, have taken huge steps forward in several areas. Here are five of them:
Depth is key
The Galaxy's 2017 failure is entirely about their abject lack of depth all over the field. It's impossible to win in MLS with just 15 players anymore, has been for some time, but LA began the post-Arena era with something of a youth movement, but with players who, largely, weren't yet ready.
An injury crisis made it all the worse, and LA spent much of the season with a sub-MLS lineup, and the result was predictable. The Galaxy had never lost more games, never finished so low in the standings, never had posted a losing record at home.
Schmid's rebuild focused on defense and depth all over the field, and he's constructed a roster that, at least on paper, looks like it can contend for a playoff spot and some silverware. There is depth everywhere except up top — more on that later — but especially in midfield and along the backline.
LA have brought in at least five new starters, are getting two veterans back from injury, and have bolstered competition at every spot. Chris Pontius' arrival, and the return of Sebastian Lletget, bolsters a strong group of flank players; Servando Carrasco, along with Baggio Husidic's return, does likewise at the No. 6 and No. 8 posts. There have been key additions at the back, too.
There's a different mentality heading into this season, a greater confidence in what's ahead.
“Last year we played a lot of the season with young kids, and it's hard to put them in that situation,” defender Ashley Cole said. “It's where they wanted to be, but maybe it's a little too soon for them. [Now] we have veterans of MLS, who have played a lot in the league, understand the league, understand the mentality, what it is you need here to win and win championships.”
Return of the wild card
Lletget offers the Galaxy so much on and off the field, as a go-for-goal winger and a terrific locker-room presence, and his season-ending foot injury during a World Cup qualifier just a few weeks into the MLS campaign was the start to LA's run of misfortune.
Robbie Rogers was already done, and Gyasi Zardes was sidelined, too, but there was an excitement surrounding Lletget after his electric start with the national team after playing a key role in the Galaxy attack for nearly two full seasons.
The Bay Area-by-way-of-West Ham product was something of a wild card, able to create and score goals, with a knack for getting into good spots and a combination of low gravity and technical skill that made him most difficult to dispossess. The prospect of he, Giovani dos Santos and Alessandrini in support of Zardes, ostensibly, sounded most appetizing. Losing Lletget removed a dimension from the Galaxy's attack, which mattered less and less as more and more players went down.
Schmid thinks of Lletget as a rebuilding bonus — like a new player, except he knows his way around — and Lletget is starving to get back to where he was when he went down. It just might take some time.
“My feeling has always been, OK, he was out for eight or nine months. It's going to take him four and a half months to get to the top of his game,” the Galaxy coach said. “Basically, we started toward the end of January. He's a month in. By the end of March, he'll be two months in, by the end of April three months in. I think we'll see his best football in May.”
Hitting the back of the net
The decision to go young and unproven up top after Robbie Keane's departure worked as might be expected. Zardes struggled to find form after a preseason injury and didn't score a goal until September. None of the other options panned out, either; LA's goals came from midfield, when they came at all.
Welcome, Ola Kamara. The Norwegian striker, acquired from Columbus for Zardes and allocation money, netted 34 goals the past two seasons, a total bettered only by David Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Diego Valeri. The Galaxy's attack has looked good in the buildup, and Kamara scored three preseason goals, all one-touch finishes, plus a couple of spectacular strikes in intrasquad play. Expectations are high.
“The numbers kind of speak for themselves,” assistant coach Dominic Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com. “He makes great runs off the ball. I think we're still getting to know him a little bit, and I think the more we play and the more we look at film and if we can kind of play to his strengths — which is running off the ball — he's got a nose for the goal.”
He'll need to put balls away, because the Galaxy are thinnest up top. Kamara is the only pure striker on the roster, and the other primary options — Giovani dos Santos, Ariel Lassiter, Bradford Jamieson IV, Pontius -- are better underneath the striker or on the flank. Lassiter and Jamieson are unproven, and Jamieson has been in concussion protocol much of preseason.
Schmid says LA is “possibly” looking to add another forward “as we move forward,” and, of course, everything is colored to some extent by the Zlatan Ibrahimovic reports.
Offense last year came primarily from Alessandrini, who cut in from the right flank to score 13 goals and 12 assists and, more tellingly, played a direct role in 31 of the 40 goals the Galaxy netted when he was on the field.
An effective defense
The most impactful departure before 2017 was A.J. DeLaGarza's. The versatile defender, who went to Houston in a trade, had been the backbone of LA's defense for years but was flitting from place to place, often depending on who was available, over his final seasons with the Galaxy.
He'd have been the starting right back last year, given Rogers' foot, and we can only speculate on how different things might have been. At one point, LA was using a fourth-choice right back, and nobody on the backline made it through the season unscathed. The depth troubles hit home here, and the inability of any among the three goalkeepers to take command of the No. 1 job was no help.
Schmid and Co. have radically reconstructed the defense, and depending on who lines up next to new Norwegian center back Jorgen Skjelvik, the back six could be the 37-year-old Cole, four new arrivals, and a center back who arrived late last season. It's a huge upgrade, with the additions of a true No. 6 above the backline (Perry Kitchen), a new right back (Swiss-born Venezuelan Rolf Feltscher) and goalkeeper (David Bingham, from San Jose), and some real depth, too. Schmid has to decide on his other center back, either Frenchman Michael Ciani or veteran Daniel Steres, although top draft pick Tomas Hilliard-Arce could be pressing for time soon enough.
It looks good on paper, but the defending has been hit and miss during the preseason. At times LA has been soft and error-prone — all over the field, not just at the back — but a better showing in last weekend's preseason loss to Vancouver was encouraging.
“It's just going to need time ...,” Schmid said. “I think they still need to learn each other a little bit. With each week and each game, that understanding and that cohesion is going to become more automatic. Right now, it's a thinking process, and once that goes from a thinking process [something that does not require thought], then it's going to be better for the team.”
The Galaxy had strong captains and plenty of deputies under Bruce Arena, none better than Keane, and there was a sizable leadership void when the Irishman was jettisoned in the post-2016 rebuild. The armband went to Jelle Van Damme, who had enjoyed a successful first MLS campaign and had served as captain as Standard Liege, but he had a bad run of form before departing midseason.
Cole, the left back, has embraced being captain after shying away from the role in the past, and he's got help all over the place, with Kitchen and fellow central midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, Skjelvik and Kamara. And that enables Giovani dos Santos' and Alessandrini's more subtle leadership qualities to emerge.
Cole says wearing the armband is “not something I was used to,” but he wanted a more proactive role after last season's grave disappointment.
“This year I came back determined to try to make this team great again,” he said. “To win trophies. ... And it's not just I wear the band. That was probably a problem last hear, we didn't have too many people who wanted to step up, and now we do.”