Another year, another coach, another failure for the LA Galaxy, which has in the five years since Bruce Arena departed -- closing the most glorious of Galaxy (and perhaps Major League Soccer) eras -- sputtered along in search of an identity, of success, of something that approximates the standards cultivated by MLS's winningest club.
That's how things appear on the surface after Greg Vanney's first campaign in Southern California ended in brutal disappointment. For 33 games plus 90 minutes of LA's finale against Minnesota United, a frustrating encounter defined by the home side's “naive” approach to defending, Vanney had his team in the playoffs. Not comfortably, especially after so strong a start to the campaign nearly seven months earlier, but enough to scrape through as the Western Conference's No. 7 seed.
Then, some 1,350 miles away, a clear penalty kick is denied, a last-minute goal is scored, and the Galaxy is on the outside with just six minutes of stoppage to play. The needed goal never arrives, and Vanney -- looking to lead the club with which he began his professional career back to prominence -- is left waxing on failure and how awful it is.
“Any time you don't win, for me, it feels like failure,” he said in the Zoom conference with media following the 3-3 draw that left LA behind Real Salt Lake -- which, even on points, snatched the last postseason berth with 14 victories to the Galaxy's 13 thanks to the PK no-call and Damir Kreilach's last-seconds goalmouth redirection for Real Salt Lake to beat Sporting Kansas City. “It doesn't matter if it's the first game of the year [or the last], I get gross anxiety when we lose. Like, it drives me crazy. ...
“This is going to drive me crazy for 10 months, until we can get back to the opportunity to be in the playoffs. This is not who I am, and it kills me. And I say that for a lot of the guys.”
The Galaxy had won four of its first five, seven of its first 10 and was firmly among the West's top four until mid-September, midway through a nine-game winless streak that started the 2-6-7 finish that ultimately killed the season. It offered reminders of 2018, when LA's last-grasp reach for a postseason spot -- after the previous year's MLS-worst horrors -- disappeared along with the two-goal, “Decision Day” lead at home over the long-dead Houston Dynamo.
That led to Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who managed to win one playoff game (before LA gave up five to the hated archrival up the 110 in the only El Trafico playoff) in an otherwise incoherent couple of seasons. Failure following failure following failure.
This season might appear something very different a few years from now. Missing the playoffs was a big blow for Vanney and the club, but he's overseeing a revolution with the Galaxy, and 2021 has been a pivotal year as it transitions into a younger, more dynamic side that, if all goes to plan, will take the concepts that guided Toronto FC's brilliance this past half-decade further along their evolution.
There were so many promising elements in the Galaxy's 13-12-9 campaign, and it might have led to more if not for so many things. Injuries, for sure: sidelining a streaking Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez for a dozen games, contributing to captain Jonathan Dos Santos' struggles, depriving the team of heady left back Jorge Villafaña down the stretch, and forcing a musical-chairs approach to the center-back tandem (as did Derrick Williams' six-game suspension after ending Portland forward Andy Polo's season). But also a thickly congested schedule that often made training time a rare treat, a hefty deficit with so many young newcomers from Europe adapting to the intricacies of MLS and nearly everyone striving to find comfort with and understanding of how to inhabit the principles of Vanney's let's-call-it-a-”system.”
The Galaxy needed to be rebuilt, needed to become younger and more dynamic, needed to find an on-field identity that will restore its position within the league and American soccer. That's the mission, and it was never going to be completed in one season, especially in current circumstances.
“We wanted to build with an eye two, three, four, five years down the road, for sustainable success,” Vanney told Soccer America a little more than a week after the final game. “Versus just try to go get a bunch of senior players and see if we can make the playoffs and contend for a championship in one year, and then figure out the next year what we're going to do. ... We chose a difficult year to go through a transition -- because of Covid and the difficulties of scouting and sometimes getting out into the world and doing all the things that you need to [do to acquire talent] -- but I thought we did so effectively.”
A “priority,” he said, was “creating a method of playing” and finding complementary talent that would benefit Hernandez, who made only 12 appearances and hit the net just twice in his injury-scarred debut season in L.A. The Mexican star is a classic finisher who thrives on brilliant off-the-ball movement, and he spearheaded the fine start, scoring 10 goals in the first 10 games (en route to 17 in 20) before a calf injury sidelined him for nearly two and a half months. That was the beginning of the end, that long, final slide starting just as he was preparing to return.
The attacking additions, once it became clear Carlos Pavon would not be returning, were promising. Especially mid-30s playmaker Victor Vazquez, a key figure on Toronto FC's treble-winning 2017 side who could help impart Vanney's ideas while mentoring prized teen Efrain Alvarez. Young French wingers Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir showed flashes of very good things, as did 22-year-old Serbian forward Dejan Joveljic, acquired in April.
Greg Vanney: Efrain Alvarez headed on right path
Holding midfielder Rayan Raveloson, 24, stepped into the No. 6 role when he arrived in May, often partnering Dos Santos, and provided some important goals. Williams and Frenchman Sega Coulibaly, picked up in April, saw extensive time in central defense. The best newcomer was English goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, a step up from discarded David Bingham.
“We're all very happy with our roster,” Vanney said. “Many of these young players that we brought in are just scratching the surface of the ability and potential that they have. They were learning the league, trying to adapt, so, for me, there's a lot of positive things that we are going to be building on.”
That's what this season, ultimately, was about. The Galaxy wanted to win in 2021, but that was secondary to building the foundation. Vanney's ideas, first employed with Toronto FC, have more in common with Cruyffian and Guardiolan principles than anything seen on these shorts, turning the game almost literally into a chess match. Colorado Rapids head coach Robin Fraser, then Vanney's chief assistant with the Reds, described them to me for a FourFourTwo USA piece in 2017:
“It's very much about the thinking that happens on the field that allows you to manipulate the opposing group and exploit some of the things we're able to open up. I think it's a very thinking approach to the game, pretty meticulous in detail, and for a game that's very spontaneous, it's hard to say that. But I think you can be pretty meticulous in the ideas of what you're trying to do, and if you can get the entire group thinking the same thoughts, and your thoughts are good thoughts, then you're pretty far ahead.”
It requires the players to work in concert, assessing details and reacting as a single force, and it took a season a half for things to click in Toronto. When they did, the Reds played arguably the finest soccer MLS had seen to that point en route to three title-game appearances in four years.
“It's hard to take a step back as competitors when you really want to achieve things and do want to be a championship contender,” Vanney said. “It takes a minute to step back and say, 'OK, let's look at all the things that we were able to to build on and what we have now in front of us to build with.' So now we have a lot more information about our group. We have, in my opinion, a lot better and clearer pieces to build with.
“I brought in a completely new system and style of play and principles of play. ... We've brought in a completely different way of thinking. I ask our players to be very cerebral game readers, problem solvers. That's not something that many of the players who have been at this club the last couple of few years have been asked to do. And so those players were evolving over the course of the season.
“The new players are getting in. I'm challenging them to have a different level of game understanding and game reading and ability to adapt not just individually but collectively. So they made progress on that through the year. We certainly made more mistakes than we wanted to. Specifically, on the defending side. I think that's a low-hanging fruit for us in between this year and next year to improve. But I think we made a lot of we made a lot of progress.”
More must be made. Vanney would like to acquire another attacking piece, someone capable of beating defenders one-on-one and approaching double-digit goals. The backline needs to get better, too, and more bite is needed in midfield. Some of that could come from “stability-types” with MLS know-how, akin to Sacha Kljestan, whose contributions -- off the bench, mostly -- were huge for LA.
Williams' growth was shunted by the suspension, and Vanney thinks he can be a major force at the back in 2022. Nick DePuy, a converted forward, advanced under assistant coach Dan Calichman's tutelage. Coulibaly will benefit from more consistency along the backline. A healthy Villafaña would be invaluable. And Julian Araujo, who had an excellent season in so many ways, might not be heading off to Europe as quickly as expected.
“His perspective and his mindset a year ago was he was quite ambitious to try to move on, to go play in Europe,” Vanney said. “We spent a lot of time working with Julian to help him develop more attributes of the position, versus just sprinting up and down the line and trying to get on one end and cross and then recovery-defend on the other side and just be bombing up and down the line. We tried to add a little bit more game-reading, a little more sophistication in the position. Some of the things that we think he'll need when he ultimately makes that move to Europe.
“At the end of this year, he sat down, he says, 'I just can't believe how much I've been learning, and I know I have a lot more to learn.' So he's not as in a rush to say I have to go to Europe right now. He knows between what we're doing with his work and our commitment to him to help get him to the best version, so when he does make that jump, it's the best jump possible.”
Sebastian Lletget remains an important piece -- his versatility, quality and engaging personality are huge pluses -- but Dos Santos' situation is more unsettled. He's hasn't been fully fit the past two seasons, and he wasn't the same player following his father's Covid-related death in late July. Now he's out of contract.
“We have to sit down and we have to chat with him about all sides of it, in terms of how we continue to build this roster,” Vanney said. “If he's here, what role that would be, all that kind of stuff. And we we haven't had those conversations with him and his people just yet.”
The sting of how the season ended hasn't receded, but the lessons it offers are important. The MLS newcomers, unaccustomed to the playoff format, now know that every game really does matter. And although a blown call in Kansas City was the difference between playing on and packing up, that's not an excuse.
“At the end of a season when it all gets played out, we had the responsibility to not allow those margins to be that close ...,” Vanney said. “We were vulnerable at the end, and that is on us. Yes, it's frustrating because we spent 99.9 percent -- all of 30 seconds left in that game -- being in the playoffs, and then we were out of the playoffs in the end. That that stung big-time. And for [the league] to acknowledge [the error] also stung. But we have to look and say where we left ourselves vulnerable for that at the end.
“We gave up a goal [by Anderson Julio on Sept. 29] in Salt Lake, in the final 30 seconds of that game, on a throw-in that was deep in their defensive half of the field, and they scored. And if they don't score that goal, this is not even a discussion. They wouldn't even have been in the picture on the last day, as it relates to us. We have to look at that, as well. And I believe that having that honesty is what's going to allow us to become better and get forward instead of blaming somebody else for it.
“We have to be realistic about our own stuff, and that's where we need to get better.”
Photos: LA Galaxy