Daniel Steres made his Galaxy debut in 2016 and since then he has seen more than 70 players come and go, from unforgettable ones like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Landon Donovan to unmemorable ones like Joao Pedro and Emrah Klimenta.
And over that span, the team has lost more games than it has won.
“It’s been a lot of changes, a lot of ups and downs,” Steres said.
“Obviously you could see some of those years weren’t good. And it’s because kind of the up and down and the change of the guard every single year.”
This winter was no different, with a dozen players leaving and more than a half-dozen coming in. But the rate of change has slowed in the team’s second season under general manager Dennis te Kloese and coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who led the team to the playoffs last year after the worst consecutive seasons in franchise history.
“It seems like we’re starting to go toward a group here,” said Steres who, along with midfielder Sebastian Lletget, are the only players left from Bruce Arena’s final season as coach in 2016. “A good core of the guys are back. So yeah, it seems like we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Galaxy continued on that path Saturday in Carson despite losing for the first time in the preseason, falling 2-1 to Toronto FC on a goal from Ifunanyachi Achara deep in first-half stoppage time and a second-half penalty kick from Alejandro Pozuelo. The Galaxy, who played the final 57 minutes shorthanded after winger Aleksandar Katai was red-carded for a dangerous studs-up challenge, got their goal on a spectacular first-half strike from Cristian Pavón.
The game also marked the first at Dignity Health Sports Park for Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the team’s most important winter signing, who played 78 minutes. Hernández, who was wearing the captain’s armband, received a warm welcome from the announced crowd of 12,200 during the pregame introductions.
But moving in the right direction isn’t the same as arriving at your destination, and Te Kloese concedes the team has a long road ahead of it.
“Honestly, it’s step by step,” he said of this winter’s makeover, which included adjustments to the academy program, the second team and the medical staff in addition to the changes in the first-team roster. “We’re looking at assessing where the roster is now.
“On one hand we feel good, but also we need to be realistic that there’s still some things to do.”
Addressing those things can be far more complicated than simply finding the best player and signing him. There are the often indecipherable MLS salary rules to negotiate. There are agents to deal with, transfer windows that open and close on different schedules around the world and the balancing act of finding players and personalities that not only fit into a club’s playing style, but fit into the club’s culture and dressing room as well.
Trying to solve that Rubik’s cube has especially frustrated Te Kloese in his search for a center back, a position of need for a team that gave up 59 goals last season. He chased Peruvian veteran Carlos Zambrano for much of the winter, only to see weeks of work wasted when Zambrano signed with Argentina’s Boca Juniors instead.
He then turned his attention to Alan Franco, a player the Galaxy have long been scouting — only to be slowed by Independiente’s trouble finding a suitable replacement before Argentina’s transfer window closes this week.
“Sometimes you have to be a little patient,” Te Kloese said.
Or creative. Last year, squeezed by the salary cap, the Galaxy acquired attackers Favio Álvarez, Uriel Antuna and Pavón on loans. The trio combined for 12 goals and 18 assists; only Pavón is back this season.
“Basically your direct needs are addressed [with transfers]. But your continuity or long-term processes are a little bit up for discussion after a year,” said Te Kloese, who returns three starting defenders, his starting goalkeeper and four key midfielders but no one who had more than three goals last season.
That lack of continuity often leads to more roster overhaul, a vicious cycle that further complicates efforts to build a solid foundation. But Te Kloese is moving forward there too, with the Galaxy returning six players who finished among the top 10 in both starts and minutes played last year.
Among the missing is the flamboyant Ibrahimovic, who set a franchise record with 30 goals but grew increasingly unpopular in the locker room as the season progressed. He’s been replaced by the soft-spoken Hernández, whose $10-million transfer last month continued a Galaxy tradition of acquiring big-name players that stretches back to the club’s founding, when it made Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos the first major international signing in league history.
“The mind-set has shifted a little bit. First and foremost it has to be a good player,” Te Kloese said. “It’s important to understand the club culture and philosophy. One of our biggest responsibilities is to reinforce what the club needs and what the club stands for.”
But when those two things — club culture and on-field contributions — are in conflict Te Kloese hasn’t been afraid to act, jettisoning high-paid but unproductive players such as Giovani dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Jorgen Skjelvik over the last 11 months.
And last year’s 16 wins, tied for third-most in the league, showed Te Kloese has the team on the right track. Still, Steres said the players who came back returned hungry, not content.
“We took a big step last year,” he said. “We want to take bigger steps this year. “