LA Galaxy bosses are bullish on academy reboot and determined to keep its products in MLS

The LA Galaxy has never coaxed much from its talented Academy, a failure that has contributed to the club's struggles in the post-Bruce Arena era. Two rising home-bred stars, substantial skill waiting in the wings, and an altered approach to development under general manager Dennis te Kloese's leadership suggests this is changing.

Juan Carlos Ortega (pictured above), who had worked with te Kloese in Mexico's federation (FMF), arrived 15 months ago to run the Galaxy's player development efforts, following the losses of highly regarded Academy stars Alex Mendez and Uly Llanez to the Bundesliga. He promptly began restructuring how things are done in building the core players for tomorrow.

How that pans out won't be certain for some time, but there's a confidence within the club that they've found the path, finally, that will align the Academy's sides with the first team. For real.

“The biggest thing from the beginning was the intention to link everything from our Academy to Galaxy II to the first team,” club president Chris Klein told Soccer America. “And that takes a couple of things. It takes investment from our ownership group ... and it takes structure. And maybe the most important thing is that the [technical staff] have the same vision. ...

“It takes time. And so I think that we're now starting to see just down to the front end of what we said we could be all along. And it's going to take a lot of work and more investment and more time. But I'm confident that with the people we have working there, we can realize the vision.”

There are six academy products on the Galaxy's first-team roster, with esteemed playmaker Efrain Alvarez and right back/winger Julian Araujo the most prominent. Both have impressed mightily with the first team -- former LA striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic constantly during his time in Southern California called Alvarez MLS's “biggest talent” -- and represent, it is hoped, the start of a new era.

The 18-year-old Efrain Alvarez celebrates his first MLS goal.

It's perhaps the most important of the post-Arena steps the club has taken. The country's most revered coach, who doubled as GM, was a dominant figure during his 2008-16 tenure. He brought to the Galaxy unprecedented success -- three MLS Cup titles in four years, two Supporters' Shields, three Western Conference regular-season titles -- and his departure, to guide the national team through the final steps of its failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, left some real challenges.

LA has since had four head coaches, including Dominic Kinnear's interim stint, as many roster rebuilds, and flailed about in the front office until te Kloese, a Dutchman who has spent most of his career in Mexico, came aboard in December 2018. In quick succession, Boca Juniors legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto was brought in as head coach and Ortega as director of methodology and development, in charge of the Academy and Galaxy II.

Ortega, who had spent most of the previous decade with the FMF, is revered as a developmental guru. A former defender who played with Tigres and Leon, he had an outsized role in building Mexico's youth national teams into world powers as the federation's technical-tactical coordinator.

“He's devoted to educating young players,” te Kloese said. “He's not somebody who is aspiring to be a [first-team] coach or to be on a professional level. He's more very much devoted to educating and developing young players. I think that's where his strength is, and I think he has a very good eye for talent.”

Ortega, who was an assistant coach for six years and head coach for another year at Guadalajara, found there was much work to be done. He immediately appointed Junior Gonzalez, a Galaxy assistant coach, as interim head coach of Galaxy II as the club parted ways with several developmental officials, including Mike Muñoz, the Los Dos head coach and former Academy director. (Gonzalez, who has coached in USL with Rio Grande Valley Toros and Seattle Sounders 2 and served as assistant coach and director of scouting with Chivas USA, dropped the interim tag last January.)

Galaxy legend Kevin Hartman, who was running the club's Girls Academy, took over the Academy operations. (Three months ago, after the club disbanded its girls operation, his role was made explicit; appointed Academy director, he's in charge of all operational and administrative duties.)

Then Ortega set about, he said in Spanish, to “investigate, analyze and define the LA Galaxy style of play,” to “clearly define the methodology and training structure” that will prod players' growth and devise “a well-defined style of play or playing philosophy for each game,” and to “clearly define the profile of each of the playing positions to master the tactical systems,” determining “three functions or technical and tactical qualities that each position requires, and also the areas of the field where they must be developed efficiently and effectively.”

Te Kloese saw issues with the Academy when he arrived.

“My first impression was that there was not a lot of unified criteria or unified methodology in between the different teams or from young all the way up,” he said. “It was more left, in my opinion, up to the coaches, what their playing style would be, how they would coach, how they would train, and how they would go about the business. I think a club like the Galaxy needs a clear identity in how they want to develop players. And that goes with the playing style and how you train and how you scout and how you educate your young players.

“I think there should be some liberty to the coaches on tactical efforts and on how they educate and how they go about developing players, but there should be a clear [alignment with the top team] and how a Galaxy team looks like, and I think that is something that over the last year and a half we achieved. I always think that there was more than enough talent in the Academy player-wise. But I do think that supervising the Academy and bringing in more structure and more clear ideas on ideology and philosophy and how to train and how to play [among] the entire amount of teams that we have was a lacking subject. Now I think that is something that for us going forward will be much clearer, obviously.”

The Galaxy Academy has enjoyed much on-field success, but only Gyasi Zardes among the 10 former Homegrown Players had a distinct impact on the first team. The striker, who was traded to Columbus as preseason camps opened in 2018, was a steady starter and streaky scorer who lapped up lessons from Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. Zardes made 139 MLS appearances over five seasons in LA, playoffs included, netting 36 goals and 18 assists.

Galaxy Homegrown Player History
MLS regular-season stats (through Oct. 5)
Pos. Name (season) Games-Starts (mins) goals-assists
M Tristan Bowen (2009-10) 18-10 (879) 2-2
F Jack McBean (2011-17) 37-16 (1,466) 4-3
F/M Jose Villarreal (2012-17) 68-25 (2,354) 5-9
F Gyasi Zardes (2013-17) 131-116 (10,607) 34-17
D Oscar Sorto (2013-16) 4-3 (284) 0-0
M/F Bradford Jamieson IV (2014-19) 42-20 (1,774) 4-2
M Raul Mendiola (2014-17) 13-5 (468) 0-0
D Nathan Smith (2017) 12-9 (907) 0-0
M Jaime Villarreal (2017) 7-4 (374) 0-0
D Hugo Arellano (2017-19) 4-4 334 0-0
M Efrain Alvarez (2018-) 25-7 (924) 1-4
M/D *Julian Araujo (2019-) 27-19 (1,569) 0-3
F Ethan Zubak (2019-) 13-7 (555) 1-0
M Cameron Dunbar 2020-) 4-1 (82) 0-0
M Jonathan Perez (2020-) 0-0 (0) 0-0
G Eric Lopez (2020-) 0-0 (0) --
*MLS rules required the Galaxy to waive his Homegrown Player rights, acquire him off waivers after obtaining the No. 1 pick on the waiver list and sign him as a Senior Player.

Midfielder Jose Villarreal, whose option was declined after the 2017 season, got into 70 league games over six campaigns, scoring five goals and assisting nine more. Toss out his and Zardes' numbers and the average first-team regular-season career totals for LA's former Homegrowns is 17 games, nine starts, 807 minutes, and about one goal and one assist.

From Galaxy II (non-academy)
Eight non-Academy players have climbed from LA's USL-affiliated second team to the first team.
MLS regular-season stats (through Oct. 5)
Pos. Name (season) Games-Starts (mins) goals-assists
D Dave Romney (2015-19) 84-69 (6,520) 3-6
M/F Ariel Lassiter (2015-18) 25-3 (504) 1-0
D Daniel Steres (2016-) 114-105 (9,516) 8-2
D Diedie Traore (2019-) 7-3 (246) 0-0
D Nick DePuy (2020-) 12-12 (1080) 0-1
M Kai Koreniuk (2020-) 1-0 (1) 0-0
M Carlos Harvey (2020-) 1-0 (1) 0-0
G Justin Vom Steeg (2018-) 0-0 (0) --

Too often, opportunity has been lacking. The Galaxy have always sought big stars and under Arena, who liked veteran players, often had experience at every position on the field. Many first-team youngsters saw more time with Los Dos. Schelotto came to LA after he was dismissed as coach of Boca Juniors after it lost the Copa Libertadores final to River Plate (following two Argentine Primera Division titles). He comes from a background in which young players are prized and given the chance to show they can hang.

“It's something that's out of his culture and out of his natural working habits ...,” te Kloese said. “I don't think our head coach looks at the age. I think he just looks at the best players on the team and where you can win. Now for a club like the Galaxy, it's something that's obviously very important. That AEG has invested highly in the last years in their youth development, they've been very prominent on the Academy level, the USL team has always been a team that always competes and has promising young players.

“Now the last step to go into the first team, that also needs a buy-in from the head coach, which is sometimes challenging, because the head coach is obviously here to deliver results, sometimes even on short-term timing and has to go for a win on Saturday. Sometimes to sprinkle in young players, that is challenging, but I must say that he's done a very good job and the development that these kids have gone through, [they are] now trying to fight for a starting spot. It's a big step forward not only for the players, but for us as an organization. It gives us real trust that in the future that there are players that can come from our second team and our Academy and be impactful in MLS.”

Araujo regularly fits into Schelotto's XI, usually on the flank opposite Cristian Pavon. Alvarez has mostly come off the bench, his creativity giving LA a boost in crucial times later in matches. Striker Ethan Zubak grew with playing time during Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez's injury layoff, and midfielder Cameron Dunbar has impressed in four appearances. The other two HGPs -- midfielder Jonathan Perez and goalkeeper Eric Lopez -- are getting action with Galaxy II. Another 16 Academy products are on Los Dos' roster.

Jonathan Perez signed an MLS Homegrown contract in February at age 17.

The message, te Kloese notes, is that this Academy is the place to be.

“It must be promising for young kids to go into the Galaxy Academy at the moment,” he said. “Because you see there is an opportunity and there's a head coach who gives opportunities if you're good enough.”

Might that dispel other talented Academy stars from shooting off to Europe when they come of age? Mendez, a midfielder, signed in October 2018 with Freiburg and has moved to Ajax, where he plays for the second team. Llanez, a forward who scored the lone goal against Costa Rica in his full U.S. debut last February, signed in April 2019 with Wolfsburg and is playing on loan in the Netherlands with Heerenveen.

Defender Leo Sepulveda left for Spain in August 2019, right after Ortega's arrival, to sign with lower-division Salamanca. And versatile Kobe Hernandez-Foster just joined Wolfsburg's youth set-up in mid-July. Go further back, to 2016, and winger Haji Wright, now playing in Denmark, left for Schalke 04's Academy.

The Galaxy doesn't want to see its best talent depart, even with new rules guaranteeing compensation.

“It's challenging for an organization like the Galaxy to invest a lot and do a lot for the development of these players and then see them go to another organization or abroad ...,” te Kloese said. “And it is a shame, because I do think that now with our current setup and head coach that we have ... initially starting to earn your stripes and [learn] your trade at the Galaxy at this moment is pretty positive.”

Says Hartman: “What we want to make sure that people know is that when we bring them into the club, into this project, our expectations on the other side of this is that they're playing for our first team. We're here to develop these players, and to send them on somewhere else, that's not something that gets me really excited.”

Europe will always be there, of course, and the club understands the lure. Ortega, offering a list of aims for his players -- to get onto youth national teams and play into big competitions, among them -- notes another: “To have LA Galaxy Academy players playing for professional first-division clubs in Europe.”

Hartman, who made 243 appearances in 10 seasons as Galaxy goalkeeper, provides a link to the club's rich (by MLS standards) history. So do Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas, the central-midfield pairing through much of the successes under Arena, who joined the Academy this year as coaches. Hartman, who left LA after the 2006 season, ran IMG's Academy in Bradenton, Florida, before returning three years ago when the Girls Academy was established.

“I think the big thing for me,” he said, “was getting back involved in the club where I got my professional start and to get back to Los Angeles to be closer to my family.”

Although he's on the operational side of things, his technical knowledge is extensive -- he has the A and goalkeeping coaching licenses -- and his and Ortega's relationship, both say, is most complementary. And there's much to learn.

“I really feel at home with what I'm doing,” Hartman said. “I'm really fortunate to work with Juan Carlos, and I'm super respectful of what he brings to the table. I think my understanding of the American system and some of the regulations and rules that we operate within are a little bit different than maybe what he's used to. I think we run everything by each other, and I'm super respectful for his willingness to share his experiences with me. I think he respects the things I've done within the game, and so we kind of act as a sounding board for one another.

“It's great for me to have the opportunity to stand beside him and get an idea of some of his tactical ideas. That's been a real plus.”

7 comments about "LA Galaxy bosses are bullish on academy reboot and determined to keep its products in MLS".
  1. cony konstin, October 7, 2020 at 11:09 a.m.

    Pay developmental fees. That would be a good start. 

  2. Sean Abbott-Klafter, October 7, 2020 at 11:58 a.m.

    Did Te Kloese describe what the Galaxy style of play is? Lots of talk about integration and a clearly defined identity but does the Galaxy first team have a clear identity?

  3. Wallace Wade, October 7, 2020 at 1:05 p.m.

    Interesting! Most MLS Academies aim to develop talent that can be sold overseas. That's where they can really cash in. We shall see!

  4. Evan Fiffles, October 7, 2020 at 2:27 p.m.

    A shame the entire academy system didn't have the correct concept back in 2007, wasted years in deveoping players.

  5. R2 Dad, October 7, 2020 at 3:59 p.m.

    Hmmmm. Might Galaxy be looking at alternatives now because they are at the absolute bottom of the table? Turns out the original MLS premise, that US kids would be trapped in the system and thus would stand for bad development AND low wages, wasn't so. We just had to wait 10 years for MLS to get a clue. In the mean time, US kids figured out how to get working papers in Europe to ply their trade there. But all is not lost. Dortmund, out of cash 15 years ago, turned to using high-quality kids to gain a competitive edge, and it continues to be the case now. If Galaxy can find a way to give kids enough playing time to give them hope, they might be able to retain some of these players instead of just flipping them to European teams. But it's a catch-22. In order for the kids to develop, they need playing time. Top players won't be satisfied playing at Los Dos for long--only the 2nd tier players will stand for that.
    Klein says time and money are required, but the key is the 12-15 training they used to get from Kleiban in lieu of an Ajax system. He was a magnet in the region because good players knew they would improve. Let's see if Galaxy can still pull in the top talent in his absence.

  6. Christian Miles, October 10, 2020 at 1:24 p.m.

    Excellent article, Scott! As somebody who has seen a lot of LA Galaxy and LA Galaxy II over the past 5 years, I witness much more synergy and the integration of players, playing style and shared philosophies. Dennis, Juan Carlos, Kevin and Junior are all "on the same page," developing technical, tactically astute and successful young teeenagers like Johnny Perez, Jalen Neal, Jorge Hernandez, Adam Saldaña and Mauricio Cuevas. That Auggie Williams guy ain't too bad either. We are just beginning to see the fruits of this set-up! 

  7. R2 Dad replied, October 11, 2020 at 7:26 p.m.

    Looking forward to seeing your acedemy teams at the next MIC tournament!

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