CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy have been in transition since Bruce Arena took off after the 2016 campaign with the aim of saving the US men’s national team’s World Cup run, only just returning to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2019. So what's one more season or being in flux? Or even two?
Big strides were made in this initial season under general manager Dennis te Kloese and head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and LA were rewarded with a trip to the Western Conference Semifinals. If there's now a real foundation to build upon, there are also seemingly endless questions that, so far, have few answers.
What the Galaxy will look like in 2020 is anybody's guess. Until Zlatan Ibrahimovic's fate is determined – within the next two weeks, Schelotto promises – there's no telling what will be required if the Swedish is gone. Te Kloese and Schelotto say there is no Plan A or B, one with Ibra and the other without, that it's just wait and see. So that leaves everyone wondering what Ibrahimovic will do.
The 38-year-old striker has been spectacular for LA, scoring 53 goals in 58 games, playoffs included. He's said he doesn't yet know what he’ll do next year, and speculation is exactly that – conjecture.
If Ibra goes, the Galaxy are less interesting off the field, but it might not be the worst thing between the lines. Replacing his 30 goals this season would be tough – too often if he didn't score, neither did LA – but they were sometimes too dependent on him.
But whether or not he returns, but his presence impacts every step forward. Building a roster, te Kloese noted “is a big puzzle,” whereby every move impacts every other move.
Ibrahimovic's possible departure would free up a Designated Player spot, and finding a replacement would become the priority. If he stays, there are money decisions that must be made. Cristian Pavon, who arrived from Boca Juniors on loan in August and will return in 2020, appears could step into a DP slot. Midfield general Jonathan dos Santos inhabits another. So does French winger Romain Alessandrini, who missed most of this season with a knee injury and is out of contract at year's end.
Alessandrini's future could depend on what happens with 22-year-old Mexican winger Uriel Antuna. He's on loan from Manchester City, the Galaxy hold no options on him, and Chivas de Guadalajara are reportedly interested in the Mexican international.
Te Kloese says there's a “gentlemen's agreement” with Manchester City that would allow the Galaxy to match any offer made for Antuna, but matching the Chivas offer would make him “a very, very expensive player for us.” And if they want to bring back Argentine attacking midfielder Favio Alvarez, who has been on loan from Atletico Tucuman, they must purchase his contract.
Pavon is the pivotal figure for the Galaxy. He embodies what they want to be – dynamic, attacking, fast-paced – and his arrival boosted the offense. The Galaxy are almost certainly going to purchase his rights come 2021, and the Argentine is likely going to spearhead the new era. That’s if a big European offer doesn’t come first.
Te Kloese also spoke about wanting to develop a club identity that’s present on the field, and the initial steps – primarily through young Latin American talent – have been encouraging. Te Kloese is a Dutchman who has spent the bulk of his career in Mexico, and Schelotto has played and coached primarily in Argentina.
But that’s not solely indicative of who the Galaxy want to be, te Kloese said.
“I think we need to assess players by their qualities and not by if they're Latin or they're European ...,” he said. “To pin us down as more of a Latin team, I don't see that. I think we should assess every good player the Galaxy can take. And I think this is a very diverse city, and I think we're more geared to that point of the philosophy.”
He told Soccer America in September that Schelotto's familiarity with the Argentine market and his with Mexico's provided a “certain trust level and comfort level” in acquiring players.
“I don't think that going forward, everything or every player needs to come from South America,” Te Kloese said. “If the player is good and he's South American, that's fine, but if the player is American and he's good, that will be even better. And if the player is good and he's from Europe, more than welcome.”
Rather, the Galaxy want dynamic players, regardless of origin, that fit into the wing-heavy, possess-and-counter style that Schelotto has embraced. There are targets in mind, and “in the coming weeks there will be a lot of traveling and a lot of looking at players and a lot of assessing where we should be reinforcing and what not to do.”
Finding and developing American talent is equally as critical. Efrain Alvarez and Julian Araujo played important roles with the first team this year, and the Galaxy want to see a steady flow of talent from their academy and Galaxy II, their USL Championship-affiliated second team.
Te Kloese grades these first steps mostly positively.
“We have some players within our roster who are perfectly within a playing style that we'd like to see ... being dynamic, being offensive,” he said. “Now to balance out other things is certainly important in the coming year.”
LA also must become better defensively, since only four teams conceded more goals than LA (59). The Galaxy won't discuss specific moves until roster deadlines, but Jorgen Skjelvik and his million-dollar salary are certainly gone, and we'll see what happens with veteran Daniel Steres and outside back Rolf Feltscher. Dave Romney, who started down the stretch at left back, appears to be gone, in a reported deal with new expansion side Nashville SC.
That all underscores a long list of questions around LA: Is the focus up front, which won't come cheap, or at the back, where there is great need? Is this another step forward or is a more dramatic remake required? How best to balance short-term needs with long-term plans?
LA must mull it all over, and a final decision probably hinges on one thing: What happens with Ibrahimovic.