Sunday, April 14 2024
LA Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig, center, shoots over Minnesota United midfielder Hassani Dotson.

The Galaxy rarely have been averse to spending money. They’re the only team in MLS to rank among the top three in payroll in each of the last six seasons, topped by a franchise-record $25 million last year.

But that has bought the team a losing record and just two postseason appearances since 2016, which makes this winter’s shopping spree a bit of a gamble. First-year general manager Will Kuntz spent more than $20 million in transfer fees for just three players, an investment that would make anything short of a long playoff run a waste of money.

It also turns up the heat on coach Greg Vanney, who returned to the Galaxy three years ago tasked with restoring the tradition and culture that produced five MLS champions. Instead, he enters the final year of his contract Sunday against Lionel Messi and Inter Miami with a 35-38-29 record.

Read more: Galaxy acquire Ghanaian winger Joseph Paintsil from Genk, reshaping their roster

“This year we no longer have excuses,” said midfielder Riqui Puig, who tied for the team lead with seven goals last season. “We have to produce our best football. It’s a very important year for us, for the players, for the club and for the coach.”

Which is why Kuntz, before his December promotion to general manager was announced, went to team owner Philip Anschutz and asked for a blank check this winter. In exchange, Kuntz said he wouldn’t ask for the same thing next year.

“My basic message was, I’m not asking you to spend any more year over year than you’ve been spending, I just think that we can spend it a little bit differently,” Kuntz said. “You don’t want to be in a position where you are making significant investments in players and then looking to get out of them in a year or two. I’m not doing my job, our team’s not doing our job if that’s the case.”

That has been an issue in the past. In Vanney’s first season the Galaxy brought in 11 players from outside the organization. None of them are with the team three years later. To avoid making that mistake again, Kuntz and the soccer operations staff of Michael Stephens, Gordon Kljestan and Joe Jesseau put together profiles of as many as seven players for each position the team needed to fill, giving them options when the shopping started.

In early January, Kuntz signed free-agent goalkeeper John McCarthy, 31, and sent $1.7 million to Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale for right back Miki Yamane, 30, getting both on multiyear deals.

Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, left, chats with team owner Philip Anschutz and his wife, Nancy.Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, left, chats with team owner Philip Anschutz and his wife, Nancy.

After a $12.5-million bid for Paraguayan forward Ramón Sosa was turned down, the Galaxy quickly moved on to their next options, getting winger Gabriel Pec, 23, from Brazilian club Vasco da Gama for a club-record $10-million transfer and signing him for five years as a young designated player. They then added Ghanaian international Joseph Paintsil, 26, from Belgium’s Genk for $9 million. Kuntz signed him to a four-year designated-player contract.

Pec and Paintsil will be tasked with getting the ball to striker Dejan Joveljic, whose play will be key to the Galaxy’s success. Joveljic, a bench player for much of his three seasons with the team, scored nine times off the bench in 2022 and will be counted on for at least 15 goals as a starter this year.

“He needs to step in and be effective,” Vanney said. “He should feel like this is a real opportunity for him to take the reins and be that guy for the Galaxy. What we’ve said is we’re going to put pieces around you. Now you’ve got to be the goal scorer that we know and we have seen you be.”

Getting Paintsil across the finish line before the start of the season marked the end of the busy winter for the Galaxy, one in which the team parted ways with more than a dozen players, including six regulars. Among the departed are captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, wingers Douglas Costa and Tyler Boyd and goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, whose 90 MLS starts are second in club history.

Read more: The Galaxy ‘lost its soul’ years ago. Alexi Lalas and Landon Donovan want to see a revival

The change in culture was almost as abrupt as the change in personnel. Since David Beckham joined the team in 2007, the Galaxy always have had a big-name player from Europe, an unbroken string that runs from Beckham, Robbie Keane, Carlo Cudicini and Steven Gerrard through Ashley Cole, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hernández. All were in their 30s when they got to MLS and while they all sold tickets and jerseys, not all of them won.

That run will end this year since Kuntz has turned the team’s focus to young South American and African players, bringing the Galaxy more in line with the rest of MLS. Beginning Sunday, the pressure will be on Vanney to make the new philosophy work.

“We’ve scouted the globe to put the names into those positions,” Vanney said. “We have a much broader and clear approach about how we want to get players in. And I’m working on putting the pieces together.”

GALAXY 2023 MLS SCHEDULE

Feb 25: vs. Inter Miami, 5:30 p.m.

March 2: at San José, 7:30 p.m.; March 10: at Nashville, noon; March 16: vs. St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.; March 23: at Sporting K.C., 5:30 p.m.; March 30: vs. Seattle, 7:30 p.m.

April 6: at LAFC, 4:30 p.m.; April 13: at Vancouver, 7:30 p.m.; April 21: vs. San José, 5 p.m.; April 27: at Austin, 10:30 a.m.

May 5: at Seattle, 3:30 p.m.; May 11: vs. Real Salt Lake, 7:30 p.m.; May 15: at Minnesota, 5:30 p.m.; May 18: at Charlotte, 4:30 p.m.; May 25: vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.; May 29: vs. Dallas, 7:30 p.m.

June 1: at Chicago, 5:30 p.m.; June 15: vs. Sporting K.C., 7:30 p.m.; June 19: vs. New York City, 7:30 p.m.; June 22: at Real Salt Lake, 6:30 p.m.; June 29: vs. San José at Stanford Stadium, 7:30 p.m.

July 4: vs. LAFC at the Rose Bowl, 7:30 p.m.; July 7: vs. Minnesota United, 7:30 p.m.; July 13: at Dallas, 5:30 p.m.; July 17: vs. Colorado, 7:30 p.m.; July 20: vs. Portland, 7:30 p.m.

Aug 24: vs. Atlanta, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 1: at St. Louis, 11:30 a.m.; Sept. 14: vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 18: at Portland, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 21: vs. Vancouver, 7:30 p.m.

Oct 2: at Colorado, 6:30 p.m.; Oct. 5: vs. Austin, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 19: at Houston, 6 p.m.

— All times Pacific

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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