The LA Galaxy were MLS’ worst team last year. That will not be the case this season, thanks to a winter overhaul centered around allocation money and in-their-prime stars, a seemingly perfect microcosm for today’s MLS.
Hit hard by poor front office decision-making and money management, the Galaxy gave up almost two goals per game and won just eight matches in 2017, collapsing to the bottom of the league in the final year before their solitary hold on southern California was disrupted by LAFC. Drastic measures needed to be taken to regain their well-earned reputation and pride.
Legendary manager Sigi Schmid, who took over a mismatched tire fire of a team midseason, turned to Targeted and General Allocation Money as the solution. By completely overhauling the roster and bringing in seven potential starting contributors, he took advantage of the consistently-increasing allocation money at his disposal, and became the latest in an important league trend line.
In an era of increased collateral for MLS teams, more value is placed on roster spots 4-11 than ever before, as clubs now have the funds to fill out starting lineup depth and find high-caliber secondary contributors. The league’s quality has improved dramatically since the 2015 introduction of TAM and GAM, and the league recognizes it, shown by the linear progression of its availability.
“(MLS) is growing … every year it’s getting better,” says the Galaxy’s Giovani dos Santos, their 28-year-old superstar #10. “A lot of players want to come here to MLS; the organization is great, so I think in a few years it will be one of the top leagues in the world.”
From a roster-building standpoint, a lot has changed with the addition of allocation money. Most notably and all-encompassing, the possibility of redoing a roster and going from a lower-tier club to a playoff team in one offseason is present in an unrivaled way — teams that spend well both within the league and on the international market can do it on a higher number of players, immediately changing their club outlook.
Why “Trust the Process” when you can spring on three or four Ben Simmons’s and Joel Embiids right now? The slow and steady rebuild concept still exists for clubs with lesser resources — look to Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo as examples — but even those clubs are seeing much more sudden improvements.
Pioneered by the 2017 Chicago Fire, the “one-year rebuild” is very much a trend in today’s MLS. Teams completely revamp an unsatisfactory roster with new Designated Players and a heavy use of TAM and GAM, whether via intra-league trades or overseas signings. Last year’s Fire went from last to third in the Eastern Conference by replacing their entire midfield and signing a Golden Boot winner.
Orlando City went the same route this offseason; the Purple Lions acquired 10 players that project to get on the field a lot, including trade targets Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan and young South Americans like Josue Colman. It’s become a trendy expansion team approach, and even Colorado got in on the act, although they restricted their target areas to second-tier UK players and New Zealand-internationals.
The Galaxy were the most prominent purveyor of this method, as they rebuilt around a talented roster base. To start, they cleared dead weight. Jermaine Jones is gone. Unproductive academy graduates (a whole different issue, by the way) Jack McBean, Jose and Jaime Villarreal, and Raul Mendiola were shipped out. All three goalkeepers from last season left. Gyasi Zardes was traded.
The sins of the previous administration partially avenged, they got to work on the international market. Defenders Jorgen Skjelvik (of Norway) and Rolf Feltscher (Venezuela) were signed on free contracts in the week after MLS Cup, significantly aiding a backline that was among the worst in the league last year. Perry Kitchen, the former D.C. United No. 6 who spent two unsuccessful years in Europe, was brought in to partner with Jonathan dos Santos in midfield.
Goalkeeper David Bingham was acquired from rival San Jose for GAM and TAM to solve a position that had been a major problem in 2017. They chose center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce in the SuperDraft, a player considered by some to possess significant day one starting potential. They traded for Ola Kamara from Columbus to solve the forward position; Kamara has 34 goals in two MLS seasons, making him one of the league’s most efficient finishers.
“The players who came this season are great players,” dos Santos, their star attacker just a year removed from a Best XI-caliber season, said. “They have a lot of experience and quality, so I think we have a great team this year.”
LA did significantly improve. Questions remain of Skljelvik, who hails from a country that does not exactly have a great reputation for producing MLS defenders, but a backline featuring Hilliard-Arce and holdovers Michael Ciani and Ashley Cole is not too shabby. Jonathan will distribute from midfield to his brother Gio, with added protection from Kitchen this season. The chemistry between the brothers should not be understated.
“It has always been our dream to play together, and to be on the same team, in the same locker room … we feel blessed and happy to be together again,” said Gio, who will lead an attack featuring star winger Romain Alessandrini and pacey renegade Emmanuel Boateng, creator of many an opportunity via acute dribbling skills. That will immediately become one of the league’s most threatening offenses.
Possessing that kind of quality and depth (Sebastian Lletget and Chris Pontius are among the players pushing for minutes) would not be possible without the allocation money influx, and credit goes to the Galaxy braintrust for capitalizing on the league’s advances. The initial results showed in their opening-day victory over the Portland Timbers, in which Kamara and Alessandrini netted first-half goals.
A byproduct of the rapidly-improving quality of the league has been its growing place as a destination spot for players around the world, of all ages. Ambassadors like Gio and Jonathan dos Santos, central figures for the Mexican national team and celebrities south of the border, would not be here if not for MLS’ promising development. Giovani is a world brand; he is involved in a worldwide Pepsi ad campaign alongside the likes of Lionel Messi. When was the last time you saw an MLS player under 30 involved in one of those?
The former Barcelona standout, on the topic of other players like him coming to MLS, offered this predictive remark: “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, some of my Mexican teammates will be playing in MLS.”
Such is the effect of guys like dos Santos arriving stateside; they open the floodgates, spreading positive information on the teams and organizations by word of mouth and persuading more to join them. That’s what happened with Diego Valeri, and that’s what will happen with Miguel Almiron, Alberth Elis and Carlos Vela.
Without allocation money and clubs willing to use it, none of this could happen to the extent that it has. And, surely, the LA Galaxy would not be back and firing without it, either.