The Los Angeles Galaxy’s troubled start under Curt Onalfo continued last weekend, as the five-time MLS champs were held to a scoreless draw by the Philadelphia Union. The game was the second of a three-match home stand that the Galaxy kicked off by losing 3-0 to Western Conference rivals Seattle Sounders.
The lackluster showing against the winless Union, which sits rock bottom of the Eastern Conference, left Los Angeles with a 2-5-1 record under Onalfo. Although the Galaxy defense managed to stem the bleeding that’s seen L.A. leak 13 goals already this season, the team is struggling for cohesion up and down the pitch and currently suffers from a chronic inability to capitalize on the chances it creates.
Midfielder Joao Pedro came closest to scoring against Philly, rocketing a shot from outside the box that astonishingly hit both posts before bouncing away from the goal mouth. But the fact that 10 of the Galaxy’s 13 shots against the Union were blocked or off-target – and that Pedro’s was one of nine that came from outside the box – offers some insight into the L.A.’s current profligacy in front of goal.
When dissecting the Galaxy’s poor showing in attack, it’s hard not to point a finger at Giovani Dos Santos. The Mexican playmaker was L.A.’s best attacking player last season, leading in both goals (14) and assists (12). However, Dos Santos has just one goal this season – on opening day from the penalty spot – and no assists after seven games.
Sure, Dos Santos has created chances and his pass completion rate is one of the best in the league. But he has also disappeared for long stretches of every match he’s played in. Given his talent, Designated Player status and the departures of Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard, he’s now the face of the franchise. Galaxy fans have a right to demand more from him. Being a DP means being a game-changer, and when the Galaxy has needed one this season, Dos Santos hasn’t delivered.
In fairness, it’s not just Dos Santos’ fault. Of the team’s eight recognized forwards, only Emmanuel Boateng has found the back of the net in 2017. Even L.A.’s best attacking player this season, French winger Romain Alessandrini, has gone off the boil slightly, with just one goal in his last three games. Also compounding the problem has been the absence of indispensable midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who’s in the midst of a four-to-six-month rehabilitation from foot surgery.
But the misfiring attack is really just one reason for the Galaxy’s current struggles.
Looking further afield, Onalfo’s preferred midfield duo of Jermaine Jones and Pedro still seems to be figuring things out. In Pedro’s defense, partnering with the free-ranging Jones would probably be a learning curve for most conventional midfielders. Even at 35, the German-American Jones is still a dynamo on the pitch, popping up in the box on one side of the field when the Galaxy attacks and falling back to help the defense on the other moments later.
Against the Union, Onalfo shuffled the deck somewhat from the team that fell off so badly against Seattle. He brought in Bradley Diallo for Nate Smith in defense and gave the more defensive-minded Baggio Husidic a runout in midfield in lieu of Gyasi Zardes, who was out with an illness.
The defense was better against Philadelphia, although the league’s only winless team probably isn’t the best barometer. Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme, L.A.’s best defender last season, bring steel and experience to the backline. But the loss of Robbie Rogers, to what could be career-ending nerve damage to his foot, has dealt a blow to the Galaxy’s stability at the back. An over-reliance on inexperienced players like Diallo, Smith and Rafael Garcia has caused further trouble for a defense that not long ago was one of the best in MLS.
Then of course, there’s the lingering question of whether Onalfo is really the right manager to guide the Galaxy to its first MLS Cup since 2014.
Onalfo had previous stints in charge of Kansas City and D.C. United before taking charge of Galaxy II, L.A’s reserve side, which competes in the United Soccer League. While he achieved good results with Galaxy II, Onalfo lacked the track record to distinguish him as the most obvious choice to lead the league’s most storied and successful franchise.
During the loss to Seattle, both Boateng and Cole refused to acknowledge Onalfo when they were subbed off, adding fuel to the rumors that the 47-year-old has already lost the dressing room. Meanwhile, some Galaxy supporters are already floating idioms like “Onawful” and “Outnalfo.”
The appointment of Onalfo seems to be the result of a broader strategic shift by team president Chris Klein and the front office. The Galaxy hierarchy seems intent on building a team around homegrown talent fostered in the club’s academy and in the Galaxy II squad. Given Onalfo’s familiarity with the Galaxy II talent pool, his appointment was a natural choice to fit that philosophy.
But it’s an unusual change of direction, given a Galaxy fanbase that has grown accustomed to seeing its team routinely sign the biggest name players in the league. And based on what we’ve seen so far this season, it doesn’t seem to be working.
The timing is particularly odd, given the impending arrival of Los Angeles Football Club, the well-financed expansion side with celebrity backers and a new stadium being constructed much closer to the bright lights of downtown L.A. With LAFC set to debut in 2018, the Galaxy must proceed carefully. Otherwise, it may run the risk of turning itself into the second-tier team in the market it helped create.