The Galaxy 'lost its soul' years ago. Alexi Lalas and Landon Donovan want to see a revival

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 30: Los Angeles Galaxy Head Coach Greg Vanney complains.

The surest sign a college football program is in trouble is when the alumni grow restless.

The Galaxy, who take the field Tuesday for their first training session of the new season, have finally reached that point. Last week two of the biggest names from the franchise’ glory days — former captain Landon Donovan, who led it to four MLS titles, and Alexi Lalas, who played in the club’s first MLS Cup win, then went on to become its president — lamented the team’s long fall from grace and plotted its return to the top.

“It’s been frustrating to me,” Lalas said. “And a little sad.”

“It feels to me,” Donovan added, “like the Galaxy has lost its soul.”

For more than a decade, Donovan was a big part of that soul. He led the team to the playoffs eight times, to the MLS Cup final five times, broke the MLS scoring record and was so good, the league named its MVP award after him. But after the 2016 season, then Galaxy president Chris Klein declined to re-sign Donovan, his former roommate.

Read more: Galaxy part ways with veteran technical director Jovan Kirovski

The team hasn’t been back to an MLS Cup final since, losing more games than it has won during the longest title drought in franchise history.

You can call it a curse. Donovan calls it something else.

“The last three-quarters of a decade has been unacceptable,” he said. “Everyone realizes that. And those of us who care about the club deeply want to see it better.”

Donovan is literally and figuratively a giant part of the club’s history, as evidenced by the larger-than-life bronze sculpture outside the main entrance at Dignity Health Sports Park. His words, then, carry weight. And last Friday, while visiting the United Soccer Coaches Convention to hype Fox Sports’ coverage of Copa América and the European Championship this summer, Donovan used his words to call for change.

Last May, the Galaxy, under heavy pressure from an unhappy fan base, sacked Klein, the team’s president for more than a decade. Last week, it parted ways with Jovan Kirovski, another former Donovan teammate, who had been the team’s technical director even longer than Klein was president. They were the last major holdovers from a front office that failed to stop the club’s decline into irrelevance following the departure of Donovan and coach Bruce Arena after eight straight playoff seasons.

The team has reached the postseason just twice in seven seasons since then.

“It was clear to leadership that you couldn’t keep going this way,” Donovan said. “I love Chris, but I think even he would admit it was time for a change. Same with Jovan. You just needed to make some changes. Hopefully, as someone who loves the club, this is a turning point.”

Former Galaxy star Landon Donovan acknowledges the crowd during a match in September 2016.
Former Galaxy star Landon Donovan during his final season with the team in 2016. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Lalas, who worked as an executive for three MLS clubs after retiring as a player, agreed.

“It’s not really a cleaning of house, but it is kind of a move in a new direction. A move toward getting back in the game,” he said. “I thought when LAFC came into the market it was going to light a fire under the Galaxy. Instead, it’s almost as if they went the opposite way. And that’s disappointing.”

When Lalas was president, he helped the team sign David Beckham, who, as the league’s first major European player, changed the fortunes of MLS and ignited a chain reaction that saw the Galaxy sign Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. That earned the franchise a reputation as one that would spend big money on big names, even if it didn’t pay off on the field (only Beckham and Keane played in an MLS Cup final).

Now, under new general manager Will Kuntz, the team is taking a different tack by pursuing young, talented, but often anonymous South Americans such as Brazilian winger Gabriel Pec, Paraguayan winger Ramón Sosa and Argentina forward Pablo Solari. It’s a strategy that has taken Seattle, Atlanta and LAFC to league championships in recent seasons but has never really been part of the Galaxy’s culture.

Read more: 'This can’t happen again.' Greg Vanney faces pressure to finally fix the Galaxy

“That’s fine as long as it translates, as long as it wins,” Lalas said. “Because we know what sells. Names sell. So it’s not necessarily sexy to talk about young, inexperienced players.

“So for Will, he is trying to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to try something different here. We’re going to be exciting, we’re going to be new, we’re going to introduce players to you you might not have heard of?’”

Given the Galaxy’s history and reputation, it’s a gamble — one Kuntz and the team can’t afford to lose since the club’s supporters, and now its alumni, have grown restless.

“Let’s be honest. The Galaxy is the OG super club,” Lalas said. “And it wasn’t just talk. It was living up to it in terms of the money that you spent, the stars that you saw and how that translated into domi[nance]. Still to this day when people talk about MLS, they think of the Galaxy.

“Having a plan obviously is prudent, it’s smart, it makes business sense. However, with how the Galaxy has established themselves, I don’t give a crap about the next couple of years. I don’t give a crap about five years, about 10 years. If I’m a customer and I am paying for this product, I want to see quality. This is Los Angeles. If you’re telling us, ‘Just give it some time, this is a process,’ you’ll lose patience very quickly.”

Galaxy players and coaches celebrate after defeating the Houston Dynamo to win the 2012 MLS Cup.

Maybe. But Kuntz, who was promoted to general manager just last month, is likely to get at least a brief honeymoon period. The same isn’t true of coach Greg Vanney, who once played alongside Lalas on the Galaxy backline and now finds himself sitting on a very hot seat.

A member of the Galaxy’s original roster in 1996, Vanney came back to Carson ahead of the 2021 season to join Klein and Kirovski in a plan to return the team to glory; heading into the final year of his contract, he’s the only one left. And with a 35-38-29 record and one playoff appearance to show for his first three seasons, he is on borrowed time.

“That they have continued with Greg Vanney is strange to me,” Lalas said. “Not because I don’t think Greg Vanney is a good coach. But I would think that in this transition, that would have been part of it.”

Donovan would prefer to think of Vanney a member of the unhappy alumni, albeit one in a position to fix things.

“When I describe what’s gone on in the last seven years, it feels to me like the Galaxy has lost its soul,” he said. “Guys cared deeply about the club; really cared about wearing that jersey and what it meant. And we’ve lost a little bit of that.

“Greg cares about the club deeply. He played for it and loves it. So how do you get that back? You need to start with leadership.”

And as any college football program will tell, it doesn’t hurt to get the alumni involved as well.

⚽ You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.