The 10th anniversary of David Beckham’s arrival at LA Galaxy last month spawned a glut of nostalgia on how the ex-England captain changed the entire direction of MLS.
It’s not overly simplistic to suggest the gamble Beckham made in heading across the pond was a game-changer for the league. The publicity alone immediately put the competition on the radar. While football remains something of a minority sport in the US, Beckham transcended that. Even today, he is more recognisable than Lionel Messi for many members of Joe Public.
But Beckham’s signing also proved to be a significant moment for Galaxy themselves. It set the tone for the whole club’s direction. After capturing the most recognisable footballer in the world, Galaxy spent the next decade signing designated players who fit into that superstar world of Hollywood – Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole and even the USA’s own hero, Landon Donovan.
Along with the two New York clubs, Galaxy were the glamour boys of the MLS. But the times they are a-changin.
Gerrard and Keane’s departures at the end of last season, after their contracts expired, has signalled the end of an era at the club. It was natural for the former Liverpool pair to leave California after both showed signs of injury and age in 2016. When Galaxy took stock at the end of the campaign, it was a relatively straightforward decision to shave £10million or so off the wage bill by dispensing with two 36-year-olds.
Yet both the rumour mill and Galaxy’s close season recruitment drive suggests that the club will no longer be focusing on aging household names from Europe for their key figure slots. After they were unable to agree terms with Villarreal’s Jonathan dos Santos, Galaxy’s biggest signing this summer was French winger Romain Alessandrini – a player with a wealth of Ligue 1 appearances under his belt, yet hardly one who will generate a glut of shirt sales.
Instead, the club are focusing on developing in-house talent both on and off the pitch. That even extends to the dugout where reserve team boss Curt Onalfo was appointed as managerial successor to Bruce Arena after he was handed a second stint in charge of the USA national side.
It’s a potential gamble from Galaxy when new city club LAFC – co-owned by Hollywood A lister Will Ferrell – join the MLS in 2018 and are already eyeing some major names as arrivals. Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney have been mentioned as possible signings.
But Galaxy do still boast plenty of talent within their ranks. The imposing Jelle van Damme is one of the best defenders in the league, Cole was excellent in his debut year last season, and lightning-quick winger Emmanuel Boateng is a genuinely bright prospect at 23.
If Galaxy are to maintain their place as MLS play-off regulars, though, much is going to rest on the shoulders of Giovani dos Santos.
Billboards all over LA are currently displaying the Mexican’s face advertising tickets for the new season. He is now Galaxy’s poster boy and with the club’s large Hispanic fanbase, it’s a perfect match. This isn’t the same flaky, fair-weather player who flattered to deceive at Tottenham though. Dos Santos finished last season with 15 goals and 13 assists. The 27-year-old is now Galaxy’s main man and he is happy with that burden.
“As a soccer player, you always have a responsibility to give your best every single game,” Dos Santos said at an exclusive event to preview the new MLS season.
“We lost two great players for our team at the end of the season and we have to move forward. But I’m very happy for the players who have come here this off-season because we’re going to have a great team. Hopefully we can win the title.”
However, the loss of Keane is a particularly bitter blow for Dos Santos after the Republic of Ireland’s record scorer had been something of a mentor figure. The duo had renewed their relationship from Dos Santos’ early years at Tottenham, and Keane repeatedly remarked on how his fellow forward had matured during spells in La Liga with Mallorca and Villarreal, before arriving at Galaxy in 2015.
“I’ve learned a lot from Robbie Keane,” said Dos Santos, who had hoped to be reunited with brother Jonathan at Galaxy.
“He became a very good friend of mine. He helped me a lot since day one when I came to LA. For sure, we’re going to miss him a lot. He’s been one of the most important players in the history of the club.”
Arena’s departure will hit Galaxy hard too after leading the club to three MLS Cups during his eight years in charge. Dos Santos acknowledges as much, yet he also has half an eye on whether Arena will revive the USA’s fortunes in World Cup qualification.
Defeats in the first two qualifying games – one of which was a 2-1 defeat to Mexico – saw Jurgen Klinsmann fired and leaves USA in bottom spot in the group. It is Costa Rica and Mexico who are making the running for a place in Russia.
“Bruce was a very important part of the history of this club,” added dos Santos.
“I wish him all the best with the US, but not in qualification of course! It was a very important win for us over the US after we had a bad experience in the Copa America. It was good for us to start with a win in qualification.
“We’re in a good way and hopefully we can stay on the same line.”
Dos Santos will have an opportunity to haunt Arena when Mexico meet the US in their second qualifying encounter in June. If he does that, he will emerge as the key figure for both club and country.