Considered one of the perennial powerhouses in Major League Soccer, the LA Galaxy endured a year to forget in 2020.
From the onset, marquee summer signing Javier “Chicharito” Hernández failed to replace the goals vacated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and before the season ended, the second year of the Guillermo Barros Schelotto experiment was over, with former Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney being named head coach for the upcoming season.
Getting the most out of Hernandez remains a top priority for Vanney, but finding stability is at the forefront of his mind after inheriting Galaxy roster that is full of question marks coming off of a 10th place finish in the Western Conference.
“It’s defining our style on the field and how we’re going to go about getting results,” Vanney told reporters. “I think a lot of those things need clarity and I think that’s the responsibility that I have.”
Defining a style was a challenge for the Galaxy last season under former manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The team lacked cohesion early on and struggled on both sides of the ball at the MLS is Back tournament, ending the season far from playoff contention.
As a former Galaxy player, Vanney knows that the expectations are always high for the five-time MLS Cup Champions, but he is a veteran of building championship teams, coaching Toronto FC to a domestic treble in 2017, and two other MLS Cup final appearances.
“We’re trying to meet both the short term and long term objectives of being competitive right away,” Vanney said. “But also having some longevity and continuity in our roster over the years.”
If the Galaxy can stabilize the backline and Chicharito can deliver the goals that are expected of him, playoffs are not out of the question, but with a roster that is lacking cohesion, having a winning record is a realistic goal for the season.
Here is a closer look at the 2021 LA Galaxy:
2021 LA Galaxy Season Preview
2020 Finish: 10th in West (6-12-4, 22 points, missed the playoffs.)
Key Acquisitions: Derrick Williams, Jonathan Bond, Oniel Fisher, Kévin Cabral, Samuel Grandsir, Victor Vasquez
Key Losses: Rolf Feltscher, Cristian Pavon, David Bingham
Newcomer to Watch: Jonathan Bond
Since the days of Donovan Ricketts, the Galaxy have been in search of a long-term option at the goalie position and Jonathan Bond is doing everything in his power during the preseason to show he is up to the task.
Bond joins the Galaxy on a free transfer from West Bromwich Albion FC and is the favorite to win the starting keeper position over United States Youth international Jonathan Klinsmann.
Vanney has been adamant that the competition between Klinsmann and Bond remains an open one, but Bond has been starting the first half of preseason games indicating has a hold on the position for now.
In a preseason match against the New England Revolution on March 29, Bond started the first half and made a flurry of saves to keep the Galaxy in the match and looked strong in distribution.
“We want to be an aggressive team this year and try to hold a high line as much as we can. That means being comfortable with the ball at your feet and sometimes joining as a three in the back,” Bond told reporters.
Pressure is on: Javier Hernandez
Brought in last summer as the marquee signing to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hernandez fell flat during his first season in Los Angeles, scoring just two goals in 12 matches.
For now Vanney and the Galaxy are committed to building around their star forward, adding wingers Samuel Grandsir and Kevin Cabral plus midfielder Victor Vasquez as playmaking options, but it will be up to Chicharito to find the net on a regular basis.
Hernandez has all the talent to rebound and become one of the best forwards in MLS, but a massive season from the Mexican international is needed to justify the $9.4 million dollar price-tag spent on him last summer.
To be frank, if the Galaxy are going to have any chance of making the playoffs it is imperative that the 32-year-old striker proves he still has something left in the tank.
If he fails to deliver again this season, things could get ugly and the Galaxy will be forced to re-evaluate if he is who they want to build around.
New faces and a re-commitment to the academy is the name of the game in the first year of the Greg Vanney era.
In total seven new players have been brought in so far, four in defense and three in attack.
One of the big acquisitions of the summer was trading for Sueno MLS Winner and former Chivas USA left-back Jorge Villafaña from the Portland Timbers.
“I still have a few years left in my career, but it’s kind of like a full circle. I never thought I would be back in LA, but it was always in the back of my mind and I’m thankful I have the opportunity with the Galaxy” Villafaña told SBI.
Villafaña also brings championship pedigree to the Galaxy, winning Liga MX with Santos Laguna, MLS Cup in Portland and the Gold Cup as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“I’m trying show the young kids that everyday is a grind, you have to give 100 percent on the training ground because the way you train is the way you play.”
Last season the Galaxy were one of the worst teams defensively, conceding 47 goals and Villafaña knows it is imperative they turn things around in the back.
“I still like to get forward, but sometimes my role will be almost a third center-back, giving more support to the backline and obviously, and allowing a bit more freedom to Julian Araujo.”
Araujo is a young player that will be expected to play a large role for the Galaxy and he is coming off a successful first professional season that earned his call-ups with the U.S. men’s national team.
“He’s a great player and he’s a good guy. Gaining that experience with the national team has been good for him and if he plays more he will keep learning and improving.”
Villafaña and Araujo are expected to man the outside back positions, but in the center of defense one position is still up for grabs.
Daniel Steres will likely start at left centerback and offseason signing Derrick Williams is the favorite to start along side Steres, but Nick DePuy and Giancarlo Gonzalez are other options for Vanney to consider.
There is also academy talent Jalen Neal, 17, who has impressed in preseason and started alongside Steres in a tune-up against Colorado on April 7. If given the opportunity, he is someone that can emerge as part of the center-back rotation.
In the midfield spine is the same as Jonathan Dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget and Sacha Kljestan are all back for another season.
Lletget and Dos Santos are expected to miss time this season due to World Cup Qualifying for their respective countries so new signing Victor Vasquez, 37, will be asked to play some key minutes.
“I think for a player like Javier, one of his strengths is his running and his quick movements,” Vanney said. “A guy like Victor is going to recognize those runs and put the ball where he needs it.”
Vasquez is a familiar face for Vanney from their time together in Toronto, but he has not played since leaving KAS Eupen in October and at his age it is fair to question how much is left in the tank.
Villafaña singled out midfielder Adam Saldaña, 19, as a player that has a chance to step up in the midfield.
“I like Adam Saldaña, he’s pretty good and is technical with the ball,” Villafaana said. “He has the capabilities of a real player.”
In the attack, the Cristian Pavon situation remains unsolved, but the Argentinian winger is facing charges of sexual assault in his home country so the Galaxy may look to go in another direction.
In March, Vanney addressed the possibility of bringing Pavon back on loan or permanently, saying that the team is open to a return, but “at some point a decision will need to be made so that we can move forward either with or without Cristian.”
To address the wing depth, Efrain Alvarez, 19, will be asked to play a bigger role, but other players have also been brought in. Samuel Grandsir, 24, has been signed from AS Monaco and Kevin Cabral was signed as a young Designated Player from Valenciennes FC in France’s Ligue 2.
Cabral is a significant addition for the Galaxy and L’Equipe reported a $5.9 million transfer fee for the speedy winger, making him third-most expensive signing in club history.
His designation as a young designated player also means the Galaxy have an open designated player spot to use either on Pavon or elsewhere to improve their squad.
Overall, the new look Galaxy are coming into the season optimistic that the first year under Vanney will be a step in the right direction.
“I feel like we’re looking good and I think we’re going to win more games and then lose,” Villafana said. “If every game we come out and do what the coach says, we’re going to get there and feel good about ourselves.”
LA Galaxy Roster
Goalkeepers: Jonathan Bond, Jonathan Klinsmann, Eric Lopez, Justin Vom Steeg.
Defenders: Danilo Acosta, Julian Araujo, Nick DePuy, Marcus Ferkanus, Oneil Fisher, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Jalen Neal, Daniel Steres, Jorge Villafana, Derrick Williams.
Midfielders: Efrain Alvarez, Jonathan dos Santos, Samuel Grandsir, Carlos Harvey, Sacha Kljestan, Sebastian Lletget, Jonathan Perez, Adam Saldana, Victor Vazquez, Kevin Cabral, Kai Koreniuk.
Forwards: Javier Hernandez, Cameron Dunbar, Ethan Zubak.