HARRISON, N.J. — Before the 2017 season began, Curt Onalfo was asked how he had changed in the years since his last go-round as an MLS head coach. The newly minted LA Galaxy boss thought about it for a second, and begrudgingly admitted that when he was a younger coach he may have been guilty of being too nice.
Last week, with his team steering straight for the kind of ugly loss that just might have cost him his job, Onalfo took the bold step of pulling captain and star defender Jelle Van Damme from the first half of the Galaxy's match against the Chicago Fire. It's a move that could have blown up in his face, but instead the Galaxy rallied from a two-goal deficit to grab a confidence-boosting 2-2 draw at home.
On Sunday, Onalfo's Galaxy took the field at Red Bull Arena and backed up their coach one more time. LA proved Onalfo wasn't just spouting empty rhetoric when he said we would see a different Galaxy team going forward, a better team than the dumpster fire of a squad that had stumbled through the first quarter of 2017.
The Galaxy delivered their best match of the season Sunday, snapping the New York Red Bulls' 19-game home unbeaten streak with a 3-1 win at Red Bull Arena.
LA was dangerous in the attack, as Romain Alessandrini scored two goals and drew the penalty Giovani dos Santos converted for the Galaxy's third. Defensively, the Galaxy stifled the Red Bulls' attack, keeping Bradley Wright-Phillips quiet while frustrating Sacha Kljestan all match long. Only a Brian Rowe blunder in the dying seconds prevented a shutout.
Leading the team's most complete defensive performance of the season was none other than Van Damme, who was back in the lineup and back to his MLS Best XI best, showing no lingering effects of the abrupt benching a week earlier. As he had done during the week, Van Damme made it clear he has no problems with Onalfo, and his game Sunday seemed to back that up.
"We never had an issue," Van Damme said. "That was just his call, and it doesn't mean I didn't agree on it. It's just his call. I think I reacted very well (to) it, both during the week and in the practice."
Van Damme did admit to feeling on some level that he was benched to send a message to the entire team.
"Probably. I think he's got a lot of stress as well," Van Damme said. "It's his call. I took it as a man. I didn't make any scene. I showed respect, I worked my ass off in practice and that's what you get if you work."
Asked directly whether he benched Van Damme in part to send a message, Onalfo smiled wide, paused, and after initially hesitating, gave an answer that removed all doubt.
"Yes," Onalfo told Goal. "I was frustrated, and I was pissed off, just like I know our fans are about not starting well. We all feel the same frustrations. We've dealt with a lot early on and hopefully this adversity that we've dealt with early on will translate. It's a big win for us and now we've got to keep doing it."
Sunday's win kicked off a monthlong stretch of road games that was threatening to bury the Galaxy. Now, trips to Minnesota, San Jose and D.C. United don't look quite as intimidating considering how well the Galaxy played in shutting down a Red Bulls side that is normally among the league's best home teams.
As for Onalfo, he is a coach who has seen his seat go from arguably the hottest of hot seats into a lukewarm one. More importantly, his team is showing signs of being capable of living up to the lofty standard set by Galaxy teams of the past.
"I feel like we became a team, and I feel like for the first time my personality was starting to come out within the group, and I'm glad that continued (on Sunday)," Onalfo said.
And if the Galaxy do turn 2017 around, and find real success, we will be able to look back at that draw against the Fire — and his bold move to bench one of his best players — as the turning point.