By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jun 3, 2020) US Soccer Players - The LA Galaxy has been trying desperately to return to the top echelon of MLS. Since winning its fifth MLS Cup in 2014, the Galaxy has meandered about, sometimes as bottom-feeders and other times as pretenders. The days of the Galaxy as a dominant force in the league have gone by the wayside and, for many reasons, might very well be gone for good.
If the Galaxy is to get anything positive out of the current state of things, with the league shut down since early March due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, it may be to take advantage of the potential return-to-play scenario. Under normal circumstances, the Galaxy would likely be stuck in the middle of the Western Conference table, watching the likes of Seattle and LAFC battle for the top spot. Instead, the Galaxy might benefit from what the league is proposing and take a step closer to recapturing its lost glory.
With all teams restarting, the Galaxy would be on even footing with the rest of the Western Conference. Whatever advantage Seattle and LAFC gained from their respective strong campaigns a year ago has vanished, at least in terms of carrying over cohesiveness and understanding how to play with one another. The Galaxy has not had that in years. While the other more established teams try and recreate that, the Galaxy will try to discover it. That could be the edge the Galaxy needs to get back to contending for championships.
The cruel reality for the Galaxy has been tough for the team to accept. The Galaxy is not the cream of the crop anymore. When the team was bounced from the playoffs at the hands of LAFC a year ago, that marked the fifth consecutive season without an MLS Cup, nearly equaling the longest such streak in club history. The Galaxy won its first MLS Cup in 2002, in the league's seventh season of existence. Until that point, the Galaxy had been a force in the regular season. They lost MLS Cups in 1996, 1999, and 2001.
From 2014 until now, though, the Galaxy has been nowhere near the level it was during its first title drought. The Galaxy missed the playoffs in 2017 and 2018 and was very inconsistent in its three other Cup-less seasons. The furthest the team has gone in the playoffs in the last five years was in 2016, when the Galaxy lost in penalties to Colorado in the Western Conference semifinal.
The Galaxy all but cleaned house after that loss as players like Robbie Keane and the un-retired Landon Donovan left the club along with coach Bruce Arena. Nearly all links with the teams that won three of four MLS Cups in the early 2010s went with them. The team tried a fresh approach with youth leading the way. That led to more turnover and changes with the coaching staff.
LA tried again to reinvent itself ahead of the 2018 season and had mixed success. Zlatan Ibrahimovic came in at the start of that year. While he was a star for two seasons, he did not help change the club's overall fortunes.
The team has taken some steady steps forward, with the hiring of Dennis te Kloese as general manager and Guillermo Barros Schelotto as coach. That hasn't turned it into championship material. While the Galaxy did win 16 games a year ago, the team also lost 15 games, most among all playoff teams. The defense has been particularly poor, having surrendered the second-most goals among all playoff teams a year ago. The defense also let the Galaxy down in the postseason as LAFC got four goals past the porous backline.
The offseason brought more hype than positive steps forward. Javier "Chicharito" Hernández grabbed headlines by joining the Galaxy. What he may mean on the field is an open question. Like the star striker that led the Galaxy before him, Hernandez might not be able to turn individual brilliance into team success. Notably, Hernandez requires even more service than Ibrahimovic to create chances. While it was a small sampling size, that already showed in his two games with the club.
What the Galaxy wants isn't always what they need. The team needs to spend its money on players like Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidíaz, both of whom have played integral roles in helping Seattle win the championship. In Cristian Pavon, the Galaxy have a player like that. He's a talented Designated Player who is not a big name, and likely will not become one. He also feels like a one-off for an organization that will almost always opt for the marquee. The Galaxy's defense is still a crapshoot, with the likes of Nick DePuy and Emiliano Insúa tasked with helping resurrect the team's defense.
Despite all of that, the restart levels the playing field. When the Orlando tournament that counts towards the regular season begins, it will likely include quite a bit of rust. The German Bundesliga came back with all teams having already played more than half the season. Some teams regressed while others hit the ground running. Regression, though, is likely to be the norm among the most established teams in MLS.
If teams with potent offenses like Seattle, LAFC, and Sporting KC take steps backward, it potentially opens the door for the Galaxy. Their offense would need to come in and set the tone from the start. It is still unclear what may come after the restart, but if teams go back home and play the rest of the season in front of empty stadiums, the Galaxy may have a strong foundation and launching pad.
Hoping the Galaxy succeeds in this short window and under these circumstances may seem like a quick-fix. That's another of the Galaxy's problems, but this isn't the same scenario. Some team is going to show that it can take full advantage of a different situation. Why not the Galaxy?
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo courtesy of the LA Galaxy