LA Galaxy: Anatomy of a Meltdown

WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG for the Galaxy can be traced in many directions, and no matter who is hired to replace head coach Ruud Gullit and president/general manager Alexi Lalas, severe damage needs to be repaired, and quickly.

Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke announced Aug. 11 that Gullit, who came aboard just nine months previous, had resigned for personal reasons and Lalas, brought to the West Coast in 2006 when AEG sold the then-MetroStars to Red Bull, had left the company by mutual consent.

The crowning blow may have been a humiliating 4-0 loss in Dallas, though the official word came more than a week after a 3-2 loss at San Jose, during which the Galaxy rallied from a 2-0 deficit only to surrender the winning goal in stoppage time. The expansion team, coached by former Galaxy head man Frank Yallop, played superior soccer for most of the match and by winning pulled to within just five points of Los Angeles despite still being mired in last place.

Two games under .500 and leaking goals at an alarming rate, the Galaxy had not won any of its last seven games. Gullit and Lalas weren't getting along, David Beckham's frustration and anger had risen with every game, and not even the prolific goalscoring of Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle - with 25 goals combined in the first 19 games - could prop up a reeling team.

A day prior to the All-Star Game and a few days before the 4-0 shellacking at Pizza Hut Park, Donovan was asked how much of Buddle's success could be attributed to the influence of Gullit. He replied, "He's not been working with him a lot. I think [Edson] has figured out where he wants to be. He's motivated himself and been very good about doing things on his own that have helped him play with confidence."

That laissez-faire approach is commendable, and somewhat akin to what a player might experience in Europe or South America. Yet in MLS, coaches often need to be teachers and occasionally psychiatrists to handle the unique persona of American players. At times, Gullit did bring the hammer down, but given the results, either his timing or his delivery misfired.

"You cannot only play with the heart, you have to play with your head," he said of his time at Chelsea, which the year after he left won the English League Cup, its first trophy in 27 years. "We had a nice combination of English players and European players who could do both. You have to use your brain and we had the right cocktail of players and that's why we were always a step ahead."

He left the Galaxy behind. Way, way behind.

So for the third time in four seasons, the team with the most money and the best facility is scrounging for a savior. Less than a year ago, it fired Yallop, who just prior to the 2006 World Cup had replaced Steve Sampson, mentor of an incredible - or fluky - run to the 2005 title in the wake of Sigi Schmid being dismissed with his 9-6-7 team in first place the previous season.

The moves, and the flops, are products of mismanagement and meddling. Where the team goes next is a much greater quandary than who is to be the next head coach. The misdirection starts near the top, for despite opening Home Depot Center in 2003, luring Donovan back from Germany in 2005 and signing Beckham last year the club has failed to win consistently.

Financially, thanks to renting out HDC to Chivas USA as well as a host of other events and the dizzying revenues bound to the Beckham persona, AEG's Galaxy operations are in the black. Competitively, LA is in the toilet.

SUBPAR. Since winning the 2005 MLS Cup with a team that went 13-13-6 through the regular season, as of Gullit's firing the Galaxy had compiled a record of 26-37-18 in league play. Its only success came in 2007, when it reached the SuperLiga final and lost to Mexican club Pachuca on penalties following a 1-1 tie in regulation and overtime.

Its failure to reach the 2007 MLS playoffs deprived it of any chance to participate in SuperLiga or the CONCACAF Champions League this year. Instead, Chivas USA participated in both competitions.

Having run through two American-born coaches and a Canadian international who'd played top-flight soccer in England, Leiweke succumbed to the siren call of a former Dutch legend as a player who'd been decidedly mediocre as a coach with Chelsea, Newcastle and Feyenoord. Gullit had played for all three clubs, and is given some credit for lifting perennial underachiever Chelsea out of dormancy as its player-manager, but none of the three teams, nor their fans, lamented his departure.

With no knowledge of American soccer and no experience either as a player or coach in MLS, Gullit had little chance of flourishing under the constrictions of a single-entity league and a salary cap, yet in some ways Lalas proved to be a hindrance as well. He saddled the Galaxy with a huge salary cap hit by trading for Carlos Ruiz. Donovan, Beckham, and Ruiz take up nearly one-half of the $2.18 million salary cap.

Somehow, Gullit believed he'd be able to bring in a few experienced Dutch players to shore up last year's team, which failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season and apparently had no Plan B at the ready when reality set in. He failed to attend the MLS SuperDraft after making a cameo appearance at the MLS Combine, and left the draft-day proceedings to Paul Bravo, the director of soccer and a former MLS player.
Even so, with a capable assistant coach well-steeped in how to scout players, monitor the developments around the league and run a training session under direction from the main man, Los Angeles could have been formed into a semblance of a competitive team. The formula of Gullit in the European role as manager selecting starters and subs, and a first-team (assistant) coach implementing the manager's directives wouldn't have been impossible to implement. Mo Johnston and John Carver are sharing power in Toronto, to limited success, but other such situations have been more fruitful.

Ray Hudson gave the speeches and funny quips as head coach of the Fusion; assistant John Trask ran the training sessions and delved into the X's and O's. Unfortunately, nobody on the Galaxy coaching staff - and especially not former playing icon Cobi Jones - could fill the bill. Precious little time on the training field was spent correcting flaws and devising tactics for the upcoming games; most of the time, the Galaxy did a lot of scrimmaging and not much else.

Gullit gave a lot of playing time to rookies Ely Allen, Brandon McDonald, Michael Gavin and Sean Franklin out of desperation. The Galaxy has precious few "middle guys," solid vets like Chris Klein who could be counted for consistent efforts. Longtime Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas fell so far out of favor he played mostly reserve games the first two months of the season.

By necessity as well as personality, most successful MLS coaches have toiled the long hours necessary to oversee scouting, coaching, training and administering to a league team. Gullit lacked the energy or drive to endure the drudgery such duties often entail, and if the Galaxy played a Thursday night game with the following weekend and midweek clear of matches, he'd disappear after the Friday morning reserve game and not re-appear until Monday morning.

There's nothing wrong with giving the gang an occasional weekend off, but the coach of a lumbering, lurching team usually works longer hours, not less, or not at all.

MONEY DRAIN. Before Gullit was hired to replace Yallop, Lalas several times pulled the trigger on trades without approval from his head coach, and left Yallop to sort out the pieces. By signing Ruiz in January, Lalas deprived Gullit of more than $325,000 in salary-cap space that the team sorely needed elsewhere. Yet even after former Nigerian international defender Celestine Babayaro was cut in preseason following a few dismal performances, Gullit and the Galaxy couldn't patch up the cracks. When the team waived former Portuguese defender Abel Xavier, guilty of numerous egregious errors during his year and a half in MLS, Argentine defender Eduardo Dominguez ($192,000) took his place in the roster. During the debacle in Dallas, he let a Kenny Cooper shot bounce off him for the first goal, and coughed up the ball for Cooper to score his second just two minutes later. He sat out the 3-2 loss in San Jose.

Many defenders are of decent value in MLS. Ugo Ihemelu ($60,500 base salary), Jason Hernandez ($47,500), Jamison Olave ($80,000), Carlos Mendes ($70,986.56), Gonzalo Segares ($58,590), Craig Waibel ($70,008) and Bakary Soumare ($70,000) are just a few examples of prudent buying or drafting. Spending $91,800 of cap space on Greg Vanney doesn't add up.

The signing of Beckham propelled Leiweke, Leiweke's team and MLS to stratospheric heights, and earned him, deservedly, a Sports Executive of the Year Award from the Sports Business Journal.

But pro sport is about the sport as much as the business of sport, and picking Gullit, as well has promoting Lalas up the corporate ladder as the lower rungs of San Jose and the MetroStars broke off beneath him, made about as much sense then as it does now. Lalas tended to a lame-duck franchise in San Jose until AEG decided to ship the two-time league champion off to Houston, and managed the Metros/Red Bulls for a few months until AEG called him to Los Angeles after Doug Hamilton, the team's general manager, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Hamilton died just a few months after the Galaxy won that 2005 MLS Cup and for whatever reason, since then little has gone right.

Nothing rosy can be forecast for the short term, unless Jones has ramped up to speed in the past eight months as assistant coach, Dominguez rebounds from his awful debut performance, and U.S. defender Cory Gibbs - a possible acquisition with Los Angeles sitting atop the allocation rankings - joins the back line and turns back into what he was a few years ago.

There are viable coaching options out there, but seeing the train wreck the Galaxy has become, regardless of the facilities and the money to be offered, would make any prospect wary.

Three shakeups in three seasons is hardly the bedrock of stability on which to build success.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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