In Greg Vanney’s first winter with the Galaxy, the coach brought in 14 new players, eight of whom started at least 17 games. That was two years ago and despite all that work, the team came up short, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
But those were the first bricks of a foundation Vanney has been building on ever since. So with the team already a week into training camp this winter, the coach has added just four players — and two of those came in the draft.
“I think we have a stable group,” he said Thursday. “We can obviously continue to work toward improving our roster, building out depth, finding a different type of player that can maybe fill a position and do it in a little bit different way than somebody else. [But] the knowledge base is there, the foundation is there.”
Vanney’s mission when he returned to the Galaxy from Toronto was to make the five-time MLS champions competitive again. And while that mission is far from complete, he appears headed in the right direction.
The Galaxy (14-12-8) made the postseason last fall for just the second time since 2016 and the 11 players that started in the Western Conference semifinal loss to LAFC, the eventual MLS champion, are all back. Well, they’re all expected back at least: wingers Douglas Costa and Samuel Grandsir both missed the first week of camp amid rumors they may be headed elsewhere, Costa to Brazil and Grandsir to either Greece or France.
Vanney says both are expected to join the Galaxy this weekend but believes the reported interest in his players, both within MLS and from abroad, is more evidence the team is making progress.
“In all of my offseasons, whether that was in Toronto or over here, I’ve never encountered so much interest in a group of players as we did this year,” he said. “It was just a lot of calls and connections. Hopefully that becomes normal. It’s a good thing if players are sought after.”
For captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, whose team-leading 35 goals the last two seasons are second-most in MLS over that period, it’s time that talent pays off with a title.
“I’ve been saying this for the past two years but I honestly want to be champion,” said Hernández, 34, who is in the final year of his contract. “I’m going to keep improving day by day and hopefully we, as an organization, can keep building. Then the results can come.”
Vanney still has work to do to make that happen, especially with the addition of the midsummer Leagues Cup tournament putting a premium on depth since the Galaxy could play more than 50 games in all competition this season.
The trade that sent underperforming forward Kévin Cabral to Colorado left the Galaxy with a hole to fill up top and gave them a designated-player spot with which to fill it. And the departure of midfielders Sacha Kljestan, who retired, and Víctor Vázquez, who signed with Toronto, cost the team its two most influential veteran leaders.
In the first case, Vanney faces a deadline. Last month MLS levied a series of sanctions against the Galaxy— including the suspension of team president Chris Klein — for violating guidelines related to the signing of Argentine forward Cristian Pavón during the 2019 season. That led the team to promote Vanney to sporting director, leaving him in charge of all player-personnel decisions, a responsibility he will retain when Klein’s suspension is lifted in late spring.
The sanctions also prohibit the team from signing a foreign transfer during the summer transfer window, so if Vanney hopes to land a big-name transfer this season, he’ll have to get that done by May.
“We have moves that we’re working towards that will complete our roster,” he said. “The way we’ve seen it is whatever business we were thinking about potentially doing in the summer, try to bring that forward into this window. We still have a couple of months to [go] through things.”
Farai Mutatu, the Galaxy’s first-round pick in the 2022 draft, could also help pick up some of that slack if he can get his immigration paperwork straightened out. Mutatu, who is from Zimbabwe, impressed last winter when he scored two preseason goals and Vanney said the Galaxy should know in the next week whether he’ll be able to rejoin the club this winter.
The loss of Kljestan and Vázquez, meanwhile, has created opportunities for other players such as Riqui Puig, Gastón Brugman or newly acquired defender Chris Mavinga, who played on Vanney’s MLS Cup-winning team in Toronto, to step up and become leaders.
“There’s space now for a couple of guys who are younger, who are going to be on the field more, their presence needs to be felt,” he said.
Vanney is also expecting more from Puig on the field. The midfielder joined the Galaxy from Barcelona in mid-August and the team lost just one of the nine games he started, squeezing into the postseason. And though the rest of the league has had a long offseason to figure out ways to control him, Puig is returning more comfortable with his new surroundings.
“Coming to the league with just nine games left, it’s really difficult to adapt,” he said in Spanish. “But now I’ve seen how the league is, how the teams are, how my team is, how we play, now I think we’re a team that’s a lot more dangerous.
“We really want to show that we can win.”
The foundation to do that appears to already be in place.