After 7 years of struggle, the Galaxy are soaring once again

The Galaxy have gotten their groove back.

Less than a year ago the team was being boycotted by its three main supporters groups and being booed off the field by the fans who did show up. It had no spirit, little hope and just one win in its first 10 MLS games.

But after Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders the Galaxy are unbeaten six weeks into a season for the first time since 2010, lead the Western Conference standings and share the best record in the league. Twice they have rallied from two-goal deficits in the final 25 minutes to stay undefeated.

Attendance at Dignity Health Sports Park is averaging 25,184 through three games, higher than in any full season since 2008; striker Dejan Joveljic is second in the league in scoring; and only one team in MLS has more goals than the Galaxy’s 13.

After arguably the most frustrating and disappointing season in team history, all of that counts as progress. But the real difference between then and now isn’t just the results, it’s the attitude. Belief has replaced doubt, there’s optimism where once there was pessimism and confidence where once there was uncertainty.

“Not having stuff floating around on the outside that’s stressful for everybody helps,” coach Greg Vanney said. “The guys come out and they train, they get after it. When they play, they look like they enjoy playing together. And when results come, good things come.

“All those things kind of fit together into a group that’s feeling really confident.”

Galaxy coach Greg Vanney watches from the sideline before a match against St. Louis City.

Galaxy coach Greg Vanney watches from the sideline before a match against St. Louis City at Dignity Health Sports Park on March 16.

(Shaun Clark / Getty Images)

The MLS season is a slog, not a sprint and it’s still early, meaning there’s still plenty of time for things to go off the rails. But after a seven-year drought in which the team lost more games than it won, the Galaxy might finally be done wandering through the wilderness.

“Getting results makes everything better. Changes the energy in the building,” said midfielder Mark Delgado, who is in his third season with the Galaxy. “People are happier, walking around with a smile on their face. Just getting results changes, makes all the difference in everyone’s attitude.”

The architect of the turnaround is Will Kuntz, who joined the team last April as the senior vice-president of player personnel. A month later the Galaxy parted ways with Chris Klein, the longest-serving president in franchise history but one who had presided over an often-dysfunctional front office and the worst stretch in franchise history as well.

Klein was a former national team midfielder who spent the last two seasons of a memorable MLS career with the Galaxy. Kuntz is a former college basketball champion who has a Juris Doctorate degree and won a World Series ring as the Yankees’ manager of pro scouting.

New Galaxy general manager Will Kuntz stands and poses for a portrait in the team's office.

Galaxy general manager Will Kuntz has played a leading role in the team’s turnaround this season.

(Courtesy of Robert Mora / Galaxy)

The Galaxy, it was clear, were heading in a new direction and the results were immediate: Klein’s dismissal ended the supporters’ boycott and a team which had won just two of its first 13 league games lost just two of the next 13.

Kuntz helped with that, adding Japanese national team defender Maya Yoshida and MLS veteran Diego Fagúndez during the August transfer window. But after being promoted to general manager in December, freeing Vanney to concentrate on coaching, Kuntz really went to work, overhauling the roster by trading or declining to re-sign 11 players, including the team captain and the team leaders in both goals and assists. To replace them, he spent more than $20 million in transfer fees on defender Miki Yamane and wingers Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec.

Six games into the season Yamane, a 30-year-old from Japan, has played every minute while the signing of Paintsil, a 26-year-old from Ghana, was voted the league’s best acquisition of the winter in the Athletic’s annual survey of MLS executives. In Saturday’s win, Pec, making his first start at home, scored his first MLS goal and Paintsil got the assist.

“Just the energy around the club in the offseason with the addition of the guys that we got and the injection of some pace and some individual quality brings some excitement,” Vanney said. “Every time we touch the ball, something can happen. I think that keeps even the fans engaged because at some point any possession could turn into a breakout or something interesting.

“Getting out in front of games is important. That wasn’t something that we did a lot last year, either. So just a lot of things, a lot of positive energy is inside the building, around the club. This group is an energetic group that is exciting. That’s also helping the situation.”

One of Kuntz’s most important moves was one he didn’t make. In his offseason rebuild he purposely didn’t add a striker, turning the position over to Joveljic, a 24-year-old chess prodigy who spent his first three seasons with the Galaxy coming off the bench. Assured of the starting job this year, Joveljic worked hard all winter, shedding weight and reporting to training camp fitter than ever. He then rewarded the faith Kuntz and Vanney have shown by scoring in each of the Galaxy’s first five games, equaling an MLS record.

Kuntz, one of the few Black MLS executives at the GM level or above, has changed the Galaxy in other ways too. Since David Beckham’s signing with the Galaxy in 2007, the team has always had an aging big-name player from Europe on its roster, a string that ran from Beckham, Robbie Keane, Carlo Cudicini and Steven Gerrard through Ashley Cole, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.

That ended this winter when seven of Kuntz’s nine offseason additions were 26 or younger and the most impactful were born not in Europe, but in Japan, Brazil and Ghana.

Whether this is the start of something big or the highest the Galaxy will climb this season won’t be known for several months. But what is certain is things are a lot better than they were at this point last year.

“It’s early in the season and we still have a long way to go,” Delgado said. “But it’s definitely a positive note as we move forward.”

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