Josh Guesman is an LA Galaxy lifer, so much so that, in 2009, he started what’s become Galaxy culture’s preeminent independent coverage point, his Corner of the Galaxy podcast.
Throughout his decade of coverage, Guesman has seen the lows of the pre-Bruce Arena teams. He’s seen the highs of the team's Landon Donovan-, David Beckham- and Robbie Keane-inspired might.
Never, though, he has seen a moment quite like this one.
“It is weird …,” Guesman conceded. “I saw the rise and the peak, and now I’m here in the valley; or, at least a blip.
“I don’t know if it’s a valley. Two years probably make a valley; one year, a blip.”
That last sentence may be the best 10-word summary encapsulating what LA’s 2018 season will be about.
In the five-time champions' first year after Arena’s departure, team president Chris Klein bet big on the team’s internal resources. Peter Vagenas was given the general manager’s role. Curt Onalfo was promoted from their USL team to coach the MLS squad. Galaxy culture was an inherently successful one, the subtext said. Why wouldn’t they bet on themselves?
It’s called a bet for a reason, though. After a 6-12-2 start, Onalfo was out, former Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid was brought back in, and come year’s end, Vagenas was reassigned. With its lowest point total in team history (32, worst in MLS), LA was competitively at a nadir.
Whether 2017 is a blip or a valley may redefine the team’s entire identity, making it all the more important that Schmid succeed in his first full year on the job. Having also inherited Vagenas’ general manager’s role, Schmid oversaw a dramatic overhaul of his team's roster, one that brought U.S. international Perry Kitchen back from Europe and 18-goal-scorer Ola Kamara in from Columbus.
Combined with the dos Santos brothers (Mexican internationals Giovani and Jonathan) and Romain Alessandrini – the team’s 13-goal, 12-assist focal point a year ago – the Galaxy have an enviable array of talent. Yet none of those names address the team’s two biggest problems coming into the 2018 season.
The first is the team’s defense, which gave up 67 goals in 34 games last year. That pattern has continued this preseason, conceding 12 goals in six games, and shows no sign of abating. Perhaps the acquisitions of Norwegian international Jørgen Skjelvik (center back) and Venezuelan international Rolf Feltscher (right back) will prove prescient, but to date, there are still doubts.
In the big picture, though, defense isn’t the organization’s only challenge. Because come Saturday, the team’s place in Los Angeles takes on an entirely new context.
That’s when expansion Los Angeles FC makes its Major League Soccer debut.
For years, soccer fans have speculated about what will happen when the Galaxy has to compete in its own market – compete in a way they never meaningfully had to do while sharing their home with the now-defunct Chivas USA. That competition becomes very real this week, when LAFC debuts in Seattle. At months' end, the Galaxy's new rival will make its debut on StubHub Center - the first of many derbies whose significant will resonate far beyond the field.
The days have changed since the time of David Beckham in LA, when MLS Cups were aplenty. Landon Donovan helped too, of course, and on the field, Robbie Keane always made sure the team was competitive.
“You’re dealing with the loss of David Beckham and Landon Donovan, and then eventually in 2017 you get rid of Robbie Keane – which I agree with; I don’t have any problems with it," says Guesman. "You lost your stars, but you also lost a lot of what it meant to be an LA Galaxy player.”
Now, Keane is playing in India. Beckham’s main U.S. presence is in Miami. Donovan is playing soccer in Mexico. What’s left is a talented group that’s still has much to prove.
Winning, however, could change that, as could the acquisition of another marquee talent. (Zlatan Ibrahimovic, anyone?) If that kind of signing can happen, the Galaxy could have a path back to the top. At some point, though, the team’s identity has to evolve.
LAFC or not, the Galaxy must show they're not in a valley. This moment has to be a blip on the radar, a reality that makes the former titans MLS' most intriguing club.