Greg Vanney: 'Galaxy have always been a standard-bearer in terms of driving the league forward'

Greg Vanney  says the LA Galaxy is “so far ahead of where we were two years ago,” when he took charge of the fading giant, “that it's amazing.” Good thing, because the sanctions handed down last month for violating MLS's salary-budget rules four seasons ago, while signing former club standout Cristian Pavon, makes for the toughest of tasks.

The Galaxy, which took a huge step toward the league's upper tier with a weighty haul in last summer's transfer market, won't be able to veer abroad for talent come midseason this year. And it has -- or had, until dealing Young Designated Player Kevin Cabral to Colorado six days after the ruling — $1 million less to spend in General Allocation Money as Vanney looks to complete a roster rebuild and restore the club to legitimate trophy contenders.

He's now got an open DP slot, and perhaps a second, depending on Brazilian winger Douglas Costa's fate, amid needs in an attack that was just starting to find its way, prompted by Spanish playmaker Riqui Puig's arrival from Barcelona, down the final stretch of the 2022 campaign. And they must be filled now.

No problem. Or at least not nearly the problem it might have been. The Galaxy has grown immensely if mostly out of sight since Vanney was brought on to succeed Guillermo Barros Schelotto (and interim boss Dominic Kinnear) after departing Toronto FC, which he'd built into a powerhouse, following the 2020 season. For all of LA's on-field growth the past two seasons, most of it in ebbs and flows, the most vital work has taken place on the inside.

“Over the last two years since I arrived, it's been a process of behind the scenes,” Vanney, a Galaxy original back in 1996, said after his team's first week of preseason work at Dignity Health Sports Park. “It's been building some of the infrastructure in the club, putting our scouting department together to be able to come to these moments and be ahead of the game, be already in conversations, be proactive, have our targets, have the players that we're after for the positions that we need. We've been doing that, continue to build and do that work behind the scenes. ... We're just further along.”

The most prominent operational change since LA's loss in a Western Conference semifinal thriller at archrival Los Angeles FC last October has been Vanney's promotion to sporting director following club president Chris Klein's suspension from sporting-related duties, in the Pavon affair, until the current “primary” transfer window closes on April 24, according to FIFA's registration calendar. It explicitly makes him the boss in all technical matters, with technical director Jovan Kirovski serving underneath him.

It's a pivotal move, giving Vanney the authority, at least in the technical department, akin to Bruce Arena's during the most golden of club eras. He's not technically the general manager, in that he's not focusing on financial aspects, but ultimately that's all about semantics —and the job itself is more collaborative than hierarchical.  

“Sometimes I think these terms -- between sporting director, technical director, general manager, depending on how they get defined in any individual club -- can have crossover in different ways,” he said. “For me, it really comes down to technical operations. I'm not the one who's necessarily negotiating a contract. I'm identifying the player and giving the profile and looking at the guys who are brought in front of us, collaborating on who's the right fit for us. There'll be other people negotiating and putting the numbers together. I know what they are, [but] they're not something that I am crunching spreadsheets, let's say.  

“For me, it's laying out the technical vision of the club: how we want to play, what our principles are, how those go down through the Academy. I know every player in the academy. I know their name, I know their face, I know where they are in their trajectory towards the the next step. We discuss that with our academy director. So I know everything that's going on when it comes to the technical operations, the soccer operations. ... [My job is to] help lay down the vision so that the dots connect on the technical side for us.”

It's not all that different from how it's worked the past two years.  

“It's a very collaborative effort [with Kirovski and the staff],” Vanney said. “The way we create and have built our structure is expert-driven. I don't need to be the expert of everything, but at some point somebody has to make a decision as it's relative to where we're going with some of this stuff. And each person [in charge of] our departments needs to be the expert and build a department that is then bringing back the best possible solutions for us to move forward and connect towards our vision.  

“And so it's a managerial thing in many ways and keeping people on task and towards a direction. It's not me in the middle of doing everything. I have one thing to do, which is to win games and build the team and at the same time just try to keep everybody on the same page. So we have one collective idea when it comes to the technical vision of our direction.”  

Vanney, who has brought nine technical staff from Toronto, says the setup is “very similar” to how he and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, now the Columbus Crew president, worked with the Reds.

“Whether it's Chris or Jovan or anyone, they're asking questions, probing,” he told Soccer America. “They want to make sure that when we make moves, we challenge each other and make sure that we're thinking of everything we can as we move forward. ... We all have to be on the same page. We all have to all be pushing in the same direction. There has to be close collaboration, and everybody needs to bring their expertise to the table ... pushing towards the same vision and the same means.

“It's very difficult to be successful [in MLS] if you have inefficiencies through your [technical department]. We want to be the biggest club in the league, which means you've got to be great at the development, you've got to be great at the recruitment, you've got to be great at your scouting, you've got to be great at your data and analytics, you've got to be great at your sports science.

“So that's why this is not a slow build. This is a a process-build, and it takes time. But we are so far of ahead of where we were two years ago, that it's amazing. I hope we start to tell that story a little bit more and a little bit better. I think that's part of what we want to do here over the next six months to a year, is start to allow people inside a little bit of what's really kind of going on, because it's made a lot of progress in all of these areas.”  

That, he says, has positioned the Galaxy to absorb the penalties MLS handed down on Dec. 2 for failing to reveal agreements with and payments to Pavon, an Argentine winger signed with targeted allocation funds, that would have made him a Designated Player. LA did not have an open DP slot.  

(The violations occurred under former general manager Dennis te Kloese, now CEO of Feyenoord in his native Netherlands, and have led to a boycott threat by the club's supporters groups. More on that in a moment.)  

“The first thing you want to do when you when you hear about something like [these sanctions],” Vanney said, “is try to get on the right side of it, try to get it taken care of, get behind you, reassess exactly where you're at, build your resources to then try to go out and fill in the pieces that you want to fill in. So with a couple of quick moves, we were able to kind of hit the reset on that, then reassess what our resources are to continue to move forward. For us, it's a pretty clear path. We have good resources to make two to three good, sound moves here before before the season starts. And now it's just a matter of timeline, because we don't have the summer window to look abroad.

“So now it's maybe things that we thought might be summer potentials, we try to slide a little bit forward into this window. ... It's the good part of having a scouting department that's out in front of things and conversations that are already in motion, versus being reactive to the situation. We got on the right side of the situation. There's never a perfect thing, but we're on the right side of it and now we're moving forward. And it's kind of that part of it's behind us now.”

Preseason: Major League Soccer

Cabral, whose ability to stretch the backline was valuable in the Galaxy attack but struggled mightily to finish repeated chances, was sacrificed to solve the GAM loss.

“Two years ago when I arrived, [the loss of $1 million in GAM] would have been completely, totally debilitating because the assets of which we could go to recoup that money weren't so clear,” he said. “But because of the way we built the roster, there's a lot of players we have that are assets. ... We're now built. And that was part of the strategy when I first came here, is that we need to have quality in our roster, but we also need to have value. And those two things fit together, because with value you have options and you have opportunity. And so we were able to overcome, I think, the financial side of it, even though it's always a loss because you want to have as much money as possible. And now we have to manage the transfer window stuff and get through that.”  

The Galaxy have brought in two players -- free agents Chris Mavinga, a French-born center back from Toronto FC who played four seasons under Vanney, and Memo Rodriguez, a box-to-box midfielder from the Houston Dynamo -- and there are ongoing conversations with potential DPs, Vanney said, and “that will kind of play itself out, I think, over the course of this month.”

Signing a DP is about “more than one play.”  

“We've got two or three options [for] additions that we think we can make to this roster between now and the start of the season,” he said. “So it's about more things. It's about complementary pieces here. It's about finding a DP, but also the other complementary piece or two pieces that fit with that to build out the pieces of the puzzle that we think can improve our team.”  

Vanney is pleased with the makeup of his midfield and backline groups -- he's anticipating box-to-box midfielder Daniel Aguirre and homegrown center back Jalen Neal taking on greater roles this season -- but is looking for “more production out of the front half of our field,” primarily in service of strikers Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Dejan Joveljic. Cabral must be replaced, and also gone is Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, whose influence (and role as mentor to Efrain Alvarez) exceeded his minutes. (Sacha Kljestan, another veteran providing leadership, also has departed and will be an analyst as MLS's deal with Apple TV kicks in.)  

There could be more need, depending on how things play out with Costa and French winger Samuel Grandsir, who evolved into a key attacker in the second half of his second campaign in Los Angeles. Costa has been in Brazil awaiting his visa and is expected to return this week, although reports that Gremio, where he began his career and spent 2021 on loan from Juventus, is interested in bringing him home has clouded things a tad. Grandsir has returned to France because of a family matter that could close his time with the Galaxy.  

Vanney is convinced Grandsir wants to continue, and he hasn't “any uncertainty now” about Costa's desire.  

“If [Costa] wants to be here, then he'll be here, and we'll line up with him and keep progressing ...,” Vanney said. “But, for me, the game is very mental and emotional. And you've got to want to be here and be a part of this and be happy in our surroundings to deliver what we need you to deliver.”  

And Grandsir?  

“Quite frankly, it'll be either he's here and he's back with us or likely he would be back in France again,” Vanney said. “It's an issue that is more personal than professional. And depending on how the personal issues get sorted and how we can help him and work through that will help us decide that. ... [He wants to be here, but] it's just more challenging than that sometimes in life. He's got to be free of mind if he's going to return [in order] to be the best player he can be for us. And if there's a challenge with that, then he needs to do what's best for him, and we've got to do what's best for us.”  

The revelation of wrongdoing has stirred Galaxy supporters. When Klein's contract was extended following the announcement of his suspension, the “leadership” of five supporters groups responded, according to social-media posts from the L.A. Riot Squad, Angel City Brigade and Galaxy Outlawz accounts, by attacking the “dishonest and apathetic business practices” that “characterize our front office and executive operations,“ “unanimously agreed not to attend any matches until change in the front office is made” and “encourage[d] fans of the club at all levels, whether members of organized support or otherwise, to join us in this action.”  

Vanney was asked if the Galaxy's “image” had been harmed. He said he doesn't “have time to read anything, and I don't read anything, so I don't know what the 'image' is.”  

"What I know is, internally, a couple of things,” he said. “One is we want to be inside the rules and we want to play the game the right way inside the rules to build our roster and build our team. The second is we're always going to push the edges of what it is because I think the Galaxy have always been a standard-bearer in terms of driving the league forward. This isn't specifically the right way inside of that, but there always have to be teams challenging what the norms are inside of MLS if we're going to keep moving forward and having those discussions.

“The DPs came about because of the Galaxy, and so there's always teams who are going to be driving this league forward. The Atlantas, the teams that are spending, bringing big players, transferring them out. Those teams are going to keep moving this league to the next level so that we can compete with the rest of the world. So from that perspective, we're going to keep doing that and we're going to keep pushing.  

“We need to stay inside the lines. Internally, we've been looking at even better solutions to make sure just that we're conducting not business the right way, because I think we we do, but making sure that we're taking advantage of every tool we have to keep being right there at the forefront of what teams are doing in our league to keep making themselves better. So that's something we're always going to be leaning into. We're never going to take a step back off of that.”

Photos: LA Galaxy

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