By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Sep 16, 2020) US Soccer Players - The LA Galaxy likes to remind everyone in Southern California that the team has been around since 1996. The club's "Since '96" moniker was a shot at Los Angeles FC, who joined MLS in the 2018 season and has since shaken up the professional soccer landscape in Southern California. That "Since '96" slogan carries more weight than just a not-so-subtle swipe at LAFC, and perhaps not something the club intended.
Since 1996, things have not changed with the LA Galaxy. From the moment Major League Soccer was born, the club decided to go after star power. Even if it was just a slightly clever attempt at repurposing Cosmos, the Galaxy name itself implies that it is something filled with stars. It's worked enough to understand why it's so hard for the Galaxy to change.
Star power alone is no longer a necessary element for any MLS team to succeed on itself. A component, sure, but not likely the primary driver. Spending big money on name players is the Galaxy template, but it's been tweaked multiple times since it last worked for them.
In today's MLS, the ever-increasing high salaries must first go toward players who will make a difference instead of trying to lure the biggest name. More than a few clubs have crashed into that distinction.
For the Galaxy, their season turning from disappointment to surprise hinges on star power. After a miserable showing in Orlando, the club has flipped the script and is unbeaten in the five matches since. All but 33 of those minutes have been without its prized offseason acquisition on the field.
Chicharito Hernandez is the latest example of the Galaxy leaning on their template for success in MLS. Buy stars and hope that the team gels around them. That's grown more difficult alongside the league's continued expansion.
Hernandez hurt his calf in the second match of the Orlando tournament and missed the first four post-tournament games. Counting the final group-stage match the Galaxy played in Orlando, the Galaxy is 4-0-2 without Hernandez in the starting lineup, and 0-3-1 with him as a starter.
Given the oddity that is this season, that may or may not have much to do with Hernandez as a player. He was never going to out-Zlatan Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the Galaxy. No one paying attention would consider him a direct replacement. Instead, he was the star power part to potentially fix the whole. The Galaxy now has a data set suggesting they had other, cheaper options.
The Galaxy cannot get out of its way in this regard. The club has thrown money at name players since 1996. That thinking nowadays is more liability than smart business.
Ibrahimovic himself fell in that category. The club threw millions his way to bring him to the league and keep him here. Ibrahimovic is a jaw-dropping talent and makes insane highlight-reel moments seem common. He was a talent that crossed over from soccer to the general sports landscape. That kept the Galaxy somewhat relevant in Los Angeles. However, in two seasons with the team, the Galaxy made the playoffs once, won one match, and lost the other.
Enter Hernandez, without exception, one of the most talented players in Concacaf and eager to try something new. That something new was, of course, MLS. More specifically, it was the Galaxy. Over the league's 25 seasons, it's almost always the Galaxy.
Hernandez is a megastar in Mexico and, because of his success with Manchester United, has enough name recognition to fit in with Los Angeles's sports celebrities. Before everything changed, Hernandez was a regular at Los Angeles Lakers games and rubbed elbows with the greatest of them in LA. That's the Galaxy way.
Meanwhile, the Galaxy started the season slow. That's the polite way of looking at a two-game run where they scored one goal and lost their home opener. Once play resumed, Hernandez's one game at MLS is Back spoke to larger organizational issues. Hernandez missed a penalty and another opportunity in front of goal. He wasn't the only one on that field looking lost for the Galaxy.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the Galaxy shut out and shut down LAFC 2-0 at Banc of California Stadium. The team played the way the Galaxy used to play under Bruce Arena. Tough and gritty defending, inspired moments in front of goal, and physical play when needed. That hasn't changed since.
Cristian Pavon is doing the scoring and the distribution with three goals and three assists in the last five games. Overall he has scored six times in 2020. Pavon makes incredible plays but also makes players around him better, part of that overall improvement.
We don't know how Hernandez may fit into this. Subbing on for the last 33 minutes of Sunday's scoreless draw with San Jose isn't enough to go on. The real test will happen on Saturday when the Galaxy plays at Colorado.
If Hernandez can poach goals in front of the net and make runs to get on the end of crosses, the Galaxy improves on what they've already built. It's the same question mark that loomed over the club back in February. Star power only really works when a team figures out how to use it on the field.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com