When Greg Vanney came back to the Galaxy as its manager in 2021, he had a three-year plan to return MLS’s marquee team to prominence. Or maybe it was a five-year plan. Either way, those plans have changed.
Because in those three seasons, the most recent of which ended Saturday in a 4-1 loss to FC Dallas, Vanney’s team has lost more games than it has won and missed the postseason twice. It is regressing more than progressing, matching a franchise high with 67 goals allowed this year while its eight wins equaled the fewest in a non-COVID season and its 1.06 points per game was second-worst all-time.
The Galaxy ended the season winless in its last six and with just one victory since August; it hasn’t gone beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2014.
And that makes this winter — much like the six that have proceeded it — an important one.
Important because 17 of the 32 players on the roster — including designated players Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Douglas Costa — are either out of contract or entering their option year. Important because the Galaxy’s payroll of more than $25 million in guaranteed compensation ranked among the three highest in MLS for a sixth straight season, yet that spending bought the team just two playoff wins in those half-dozen seasons.
The team got started on its offseason makeover Monday, announcing that Costa, a 33-year-old Brazilian winger, will not return, opening up a designated player spot.
“This is important because we’ve got to show real progress next season,” Vanney said of the winter ahead. “We need to put ourselves back into the discussion about being a capable championship-winning franchise.”
Of course that’s what Vanney, who played on the Galaxy’s first championship-winning team in 1998, said when he returned three years ago. And despite what’s transpired in the interim, he’s still confident he’s the guy best suited to turn the team around.
“Yeah, for sure,” said Vanney, who is under contract for next season. "There’s nothing more that hurts me than the team losing and the team not performing. If there’s a point when I thought I wasn’t the guy, I wouldn’t be here. On my own accord because I care about the club.
“It's not a job for me, this is my life and I won't stop until we get there. Unless somebody else makes that decision for me.”
The Galaxy went 8-14-12 in 2023, Vanney’s worst season in a decade as manager in Toronto and Los Angeles and one so frustrating he became emotional just talking about it following Saturday’s final game. It was also the most turbulent season in his career, one that opened under a huge black cloud after the team and then-president Chris Klein were fined and sanctioned by the MLS for violating the league’s salary guidelines.
Then things got worse.
After it was announced that Klein had been re-signed to a multi-year contract extension despite the penalties and a losing record through much of his tenure, the team’s main supporter groups boycotted the team, demanding Klein be fired. When the Galaxy won just two of its first 14 games, falling to the bottom of the 14-team Western Conference table, Klein was sacked. But that came too late to save the season; although the team responded by losing just one of its next 13 MLS games, the hole it had dug was too deep and the Galaxy never got higher than 13th in the standings.
“This can’t happen again,” defender Raheem Edwards said after the team stumbled across the finish line Saturday.
There were some extenuating circumstances. Although Vanney and the team tried to dismiss the supporter boycott as a minor distraction, it was clearly much bigger than that in the dressing room, where it weighed heavily on the players and impacted performance. The Galaxy also saw five key players, including Hernández, the team’s leading scorer the last two years, have their seasons ended early by surgery while injuries forced at least a half dozen others to miss multiple games. As a result, winger Tyler Boyd was the only player to appear in all 34 MLS games and midfielder Riqui Puig was the only one to play as many as 80% of the available MLS minutes.
“Other general managers around the league, they say to me, ‘man, you guys have encountered five years of adversity,’” Vanney said. “There are some things that we’ve encountered that teams never encountered. And that’s been stressful.”
The Galaxy have four months to fix that. Will Kuntz, who joined the team in April as senior vice president of player personnel, did a masterful job during the summer transfer window, adding five players despite ongoing league sanctions that limited his ability to sign international players. And while that gave the team hope, Kuntz is the first to admit it didn’t pay off with many wins.
“We went all the way from 13th place to 13th place,” he said Monday.
Still, Kuntz’s presence is reason to believe this could be a productive winter for the Galaxy — although it could also be a season of change. Kuntz, who helped build LAFC into an MLS champion as the team’s senior vice president of soccer operations, favors building around young, anonymous players on their way up and sees Central and South America as a cost-effective market for that kind of player. The Galaxy, when they were successful, frequently built around older, big-name Europeans such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Steve Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Look for the Galaxy to be open to both paths.
“You're seeing clubs are getting real benefit from having the right mix of [designated players], and that can be in terms of age, in terms of notoriety, in terms of their backgrounds,” Kuntz said. “I wouldn't paint myself as a disciple of any one particular school of thought.”
“If you look at this season, we gave up a lot of goals and in different times didn't have the sort of overall quality of attack that we were looking for. So those would be some areas we look to address.”
During his three seasons with the Galaxy, Vanney has had success building out the scouting staff, improving the team’s academy and modernizing the sports science department. He will continue to have the final say on the roster.
“When it comes to what our needs, what the profiles of those positions should look like, that’s my area. I’m the cook and I need the ingredients,” he said. “[We] are constantly looking at the options. We’re scouting leads and we know profiles of players who already fit into our analytics, we know the ones that fit into our style of play, we know the ones who fit into our style of play.”
Sounds like a plan. But is it a winning one?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.