ORLANDO -- Perhaps no team in Major League Soccer has been as disappointing as the LA Galaxy over the last two seasons. The league’s most dominant franchise for the first half of the decade has fallen on hard times since former head coach Bruce Arena left following the 2016 campaign, missing the playoffs in two consecutive years, changing coaches four times, struggling to enact a coherent long-term vision and, perhaps most damningly, falling behind LAFC during their crosstown rival’s first season in 2018.
There’s been plenty of adversity. With that comes great opportunity. LA might be coming off two of the worst seasons in club history, but they’ve got the stars, the resources, the brand recognition and the pool of academy talent to quickly return to the top of MLS.
They’ve also got a new man at the top. Dennis te Kloese left his position as the head of the Mexico’s national teams to join LA as GM in December. The Dutch executive had a plum gig with FMF and plenty of reasons to stay in Mexico, but he saw the potential in LA. If he has his way, the Galaxy won’t just put themselves in position to once again contend for MLS Cups, they’ll become a self-sustaining power pushed forward in large parts by big names and local kids.
“It’s very good to carry ourselves as a big club, but you need to deserve to be a big club,” Te Kloese told MLSsoccer.com from 2019 adidas Player Combine. “And that comes with hard work and a lot of scouting and a lot of good people around our program. It’s not overnight.”
Te Kloese is right that it’ll take some time to erase the memories of the past two years in LA, but the Galaxy look to have more than enough to contend in the Western Conference in 2019. They’ve got a new coach with serious status in ex-Boca Juniors manager and former MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and a roster laden with attacking talent. At minimum, the expectation will be a return to the playoffs in 2018 and potentially a deep playoff run. But building a first-team roster that can truly match those of Atlanta, Toronto and Seattle and developing an academy that produces pros of the quantity and caliber of the New York Red Bulls will be projects measured in years, not months.
That’s particularly true considering the current state of the Galaxy roster. Te Kloese and Schelotto simply don’t have much room to maneuver this winter. The club currently have four Designated Players on the books in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, brothers Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini. They’ll have to move one before the start of the regular season in March.
That could prove difficult. Ibrahimovic isn’t going anywhere after just re-signing a new, one-year contract. Giovani dos Santos has a massive 2019 salary and has struggled for most of the last two seasons. Jonathan and Alessandrini are on more manageable numbers next season, but they’re too expensive to be bought down with Targeted Allocation Money and have performed well enough that the Galaxy won’t want to part ways with either.
For now, Te Kloese wants to give Schelotto, who was only announced as head coach last Thursday, time to speak with all four DPs before deciding on a potential direction. It’s clear that every option -- transfers, trades, negotiating a salary under the TAM threshold or buying out a contract entirely -- is currently on the table, though several sources from other clubs expect the Galaxy to eventually buy out Giovani.
“They are high profile players, not only within the US, but also from abroad and we’ll look at every interest,” said Te Kloese, who has longstanding relationships with both dos Santos brothers through his work in Mexico. “But also I think we need to sit down with them and see what their actual interest is and what happened over the last course of the last season, or actually the last two seasons.
“We need to see if there is room to improve or isn’t there, how is the relationship from the club towards the player and the player towards the club, how eager are they to be under Guillermo and can we make a positive impact on that or not. The fact is that you’re only allowed three, so there needs to be something done and we’ll get it done.”
The Galaxy don’t have much salary cap flexibility elsewhere on the roster, either, with Te Kloese characterizing the team’s budget situation as “pretty tight.” In addition to their DPs, the club remain tied to significant contracts for Ola Kamara, Sebastian Lletget, Jorgen Skjelvik and Perry Kitchen, the latter two of whom underwhelmed in 2018. Te Kloese confirmed that the club is in talks with defenders Ashley Cole and Rolf Feltscher to return on new deals after their contract options were declined following last season. He also added that he’d like to add at least one new center back, a position the Galaxy struggled greatly with in 2018, this winter.
“We need to be defensively a lot better, we need to probably add some pieces there,” he said. “We’ll have to be very creative, and we need to tap into the best resources that we have on getting players so that we can actually add something or make us more competitive.”
Those are short-term issues, though. Te Kloese naturally has more on his plate, namely increasing the return the Galaxy get on their academy. Despite operating in what’s likely the most talent-rich region in the country, LA have only ever produced one Homegrown Player of note in Gyasi Zardes. He was traded to Columbus last winter.
Te Kloese, who helped recruit several players from the LA area to Mexico’s youth national teams during his time with the FMF, is well aware that the Galaxy need to get more out of their academy. He knows they have a ton of work to do with their youth system, too.
“I’ve always been a little bit like with the idea that they could be taking so much more out of the local community,” said Te Kloese. “In the end is not so easy for a big club to play young players, but I think there should be some on the roster and there should be something that gives a little bit extra to the Galaxy based on their local talent pool.”
As is the case with the first team, the ingredients are in place for the Galaxy academy to be successful. Their region is incredibly talented and their academy has solid facilities and, according to Te Kloese, is run well on an administrative and logistical standpoint. They haven’t, however, had an academy director for two years, something Te Kloese said he wants to correct within the next couple of months. Once he makes that hire, the principles of how the club’s youth players will train, play and learn will become more defined. Until then, Te Kloese and Schelotto are focused on more closely integrating the first-team, LA Galaxy II in USL and the academy and on opening doors for some of their current young players, including 16-year-old Mexican youth national team attacker Efrain Alvarez, who stood out with LA Galaxy II in USL last season.
“It’s not an easy opportunity and it’s not something that’s just handed out to everybody, but there needs to be somewhat of a connection between the first-team the second-team and the academy,” said Te Kloese. “If it’s all on islands or different planets there won’t be any opportunities and kids and parents, they see that. So if it can be connected and if the first-team starts to get somewhat involved with the second-team and if the second-team is much more related to the academy, then we can go into style and how they play, how they train and manuals. But that is something for the future. The first thing is to connect a little bit more and have more community and have a clear idea of who the talented players are.”
Having clear ideas is the key for LA this year. The Galaxy have always had the money and resources to succeed. What they’ve lacked the last two seasons is solid strategy and clarity at the top of their organization. With Te Kloese on board, they feel that’ll change. Whether that leads to improved results, will depend on how well he implements his plan.