The LA Galaxy's long makeover is finally complete with the hiring of Curt Onalfo
Bruce Arena was the LA Galaxy. He took over from the disastrous Ruud Gullit and turned one of the worst teams in MLS into a dynasty. He did it as the manager and general manager, overseeing the entire operation and cementing his spot as the best coach in American soccer history.
But Arena left the club three weeks ago and the Galaxy were staring at an uncertain future: where do they go without the man who had defined and driven the club for years?
The answer came from within, and it wasn't very surprising. While Arena still dominated the club and led the way for the Galaxy, the club had slowly begun putting together a much larger structure that could operate the team when he left, whenever that was.
So Pete Vagenas was promoted from vice president of soccer operations, where he reported to Arena, to general manager. And Curt Onalfo, who had been the team's reserve coach, was named the new first team manager.
Both of Arena's jobs were filled and they were filled from within.
This is a process that started in 2012 when the Galaxy hired the recently retired Venegas to run the team's academy. The Galaxy were ready to pour money into their youth program and had already signed a player from their academy, but they didn't have much structure yet. Venegas, a former player for the club, was tabbed with giving their development program an identity and solidifying it as one of the best in the league.
Investing in the academy was a big step for the Galaxy. Their previous successes had come down to a general manager who could scout and find good senior talent, or leveraging the Galaxy's deep pockets and the LA lifestyle to import stars. It was, and remains, an important way to acquire good players, but it's costly, tough to sustain and, frankly, leaves you with an aging team more often than not. They made it clear that they wanted to be a sustainable side whose club was much bigger than any one or two individuals. An academy alone wouldn't do that, but it was a big start and Venegas took on a huge role in that.
The Galaxy's next move was to bridge the gap from the academy to the first team with a reserve team in the third-division USL. They launched that team in 2014 and Onalfo went from a first team assistant to the reserve team manager. Pulling a coach from the first team and sending him to the reserves was a sign of the importance LA had placed on their academy and the transition to the first team.
That Onalfo willingly took the job – which was no small feat for someone who had managed in MLS twice before and had interest from other clubs – made it clear that everyone in the organization recognized how important the USL team was. It may not have been a job with much glory, but it was key to the club and it wasn't just a mandate from the top down – even those in the system recognized it and were willing to change career courses for it.
All while this was happening, Arena still ran the show. He got help from Venegas and Onalfo, and worked with club president Chris Klein, but the team was Arena's. The academy and USL team were simply providing Arena with another resource, but they were his club.
When a person like Arena, with all the power and influence he wielded, steps away, it could be a huge blow to the club. It may still be for the Galaxy – after all, we don't know how Venegas and Onalfo do – but it's something they're ready for and they want to make sure that no one person dominates the club again or can break the club.
Everyone now has very clearly defined roles. They will help each other, but everyone is responsible for one things. It's a clear structure and an ambitious one, but it's not really that new. it's one they've spent the last four years preparing for.