Another high-priced Designated Player is headed to the Galaxy; cue the criticisms and concerns MLS is on the brink of domination by big-spending teams.
Winner of three MLS Cup titles in the past four years, the Galaxy has dipped deep into its coffers once again to replace the retired Landon Donovan with English midfielder Steven Gerrard. On the Galaxy’s DP list, he’ll join defender Omar Gonzalez and forward Robbie Keane, whose own arrival in the summer of 2011 spurred a run to the MLS title and a repeat in 2012 as well as another crown in December that refueled fear of the DP specter.
In a conference call last month to discuss the Gerrard deal, head coach Bruce Arena expressed belief the Englishman's arrival could equal that of Keane, scorer of 53 goals in 84 regular-season games and nine more in 17 playoff matches.
“I do think it will be similar,” said Arena. “When Robbie came in around June or July three years ago or whatever it was, he was the last piece we felt we needed to really make our team a good team. He did a great job his first year. I think the same will be the case with Stevie.
“One advantage with Stevie is his transition. As it is with all players, won’t be easy, but he’s English-speaking, which makes transition a little bit easier. He’s been the United States a number of times, knows players on our team, so when he steps in he’ll be able to contribute right away.”
Does the Galaxy spend big and in most cases spend well? Most assuredly. Does it also shrewdly acquire players essential to success who are under-valued by critics and rival fans, and pay them accordingly? Absolutely.
In 2013, Arena’s decision to play Zardes, a young, raw striker, at left mid a few months after he’d signed a Homegrown contract prompted many to ask, “Why?” When the Galaxy signed a Swedish player with a Japanese surname in January, 2014, reaction to Stefan Ishizaki didn’t go much beyond “Who?” Arena’s insistence last season that midfielder Robbie Rogers would develop into a capable left back sparked retorts of “How?”
All three played vital roles last season as the Galaxy powered through RSL, edged Seattle and outlasted New England to win the title. Zardes finished second to Keane for the team lead with 16 goals, Ishizaki earned laurels as a Newcomer of the Year finalist, and Rogers’ notoriety as the first openly gay professional athlete matched reviews of his composed, poised play in a new position.
Zardes reached another milestone last month when U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called him into the January training camp, just 13 months after he signed his Homegrown deal. He debuted as a sub against Chile and on Sunday got his first start in front of his hometown fans at StubHub Center.
He lived up to the moment: the ball he slipped through the Panama back line for one of his boyhood heroes, Clint Dempsey, to take around Galaxy teammate Jaime Penedo and clip into the net, as well as the chested pass that set up Michael Bradley, oozed with class. Watching it all from a VIP box was Arena, who must have seen enough in Zardes years ago to consider accelerating his development.
Zardes had played with Galaxy’s U-18 and U-20 teams and after tearing it up for three seasons at Cal State Bakersfield opted for a Homegrown deal. His breakout 2014 MLS season and performance Sunday sparked forecasts of a glorious USA career and lucrative move overseas; fortunately for him, the rigorous demands imposed by Arena and his staff, not to mention the incessant hectoring by Keane, will most likely disintegrate any lofty distractions.
A massive $15 million video board is under construction at StubHub Center. The Galaxy spends more than $1 million each year on its reserve team, Galaxy II. Gerrard’s 18-month deal is reportedly worth $9 million, minus the $750,000 that MLS has supposedly contributed. Zardes banked $198,000 last year and as the Galaxy showed in 2013 by signing Omar Gonzalez to a new deal at DP money, another strong season by Zardes would probably be rewarded at a bigger non-DP salary.
It’s easy to demonize the Galaxy as all that’s wrong with where MLS might be going. And wild overspending can be ruinous competitively as well as financially.
But Sporting Kansas City won the 2013 title with its glamorous DP, Claudio Bieler, riding the bench because a USL PRO hotshot, Dom Dwyer, had stolen his spot. In recent seasons, Seattle has spent a lot and failed to reach MLS Cup, the same fate that befell Toronto FC and Chicago, not to mention the New York Red Bulls (who reached the final in 2008, before Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez).
A deal to acquire Sacha Kljestan last year ran aground when MLS balked at terms that stipulated an initial six-month loan and the Galaxy was rebuffed again last month when a trade of Marcelo Sarvas to Colorado moved it up to No. 3 in the allocation rankings and New York worked its own deal to bag Kljestan with the top spot. No matter. The Galaxy moves on.
The Galaxy doesn’t win because it outspends other teams. It wins because it doesn't give up.