'I'm here for a reason' - Onalfo confident he can lead LA Galaxy to success in post-Arena era
2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
CARSON, Calif. — You might have thought it would take a while for Curt Onalfo to settle in and get comfortable in his new job as head coach of the LA Galaxy, with the fact he was replacing a legend in Bruce Arena. Rest assured, Onalfo felt no nerves in taking the job as Arena's replacement, and he felt right at home as he moved into the former office of the most successful coach in MLS history.
Onalfo is no stranger to the inner workings of the Galaxy, having been both an assistant coach for Galaxy and head coach for the team's USL affiliate. A veteran of two MLS head coaching stints with the then-Kansas City Wizards and D.C. United, Onalfo has been honing his craft as a coach of younger players, and believes now is the right time to jump back into leading an MLS team.
"I’m here for a reason," Onalfo told Goal. "Those experiences in MLS were a long time ago. I’m 10 times the coach I was then. We all grow and evolve. I remember showing up in Kansas City thinking that I know everything. When you’re a young coach that’s how you think, but then you learn it’s a process and it takes time."
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Onalfo has spent the past six years in the Galaxy organization, serving as an assistant coach and, perhaps more importantly, as head coach of the Galaxy's reserve team and eventually their USL affiliate, LA Galaxy II. For a club intent on maximizing the benefits of its highly regarded youth academy, Onalfo seemed like the perfect choice given his understanding of the structure of the team and familiarity with many first-team players.
"When we made the decision to do this and have a search and not just hire our reserve team coach, we wanted to exhaust all our options, and we did that," Galaxy president Chris Klein said at the news conference to announce Onalfo's hiring as head coach. "For Pete (Vagenas) and I, after speaking with Dan (Beckerman) and Phil (Anschutz), we kept coming back to Curt. He was the obvious and the best choice."
As confident as the Galaxy front office may be in Onalfo's hiring, the fact remains he isn't Arena, and the ghost of Arena's legacy is sure to haunt Onalfo's first season in charge. Arena won three MLS Cup titles during his nine years in charge, helping establish the Galaxy as the league's dominant team.
Onalfo insists he isn't bothered by the high bar set by his mentor and predecessor, and doesn't consider Arena's legacy a hindrance.
"I don’t think about it at all, I really don't," Onalfo said. "I don't mind it because I love Bruce. He's a legend, and it's great to be associated with him.
"I've been associated with (Arena) forever, but we’re not the same people," added Onalfo, who played for Arena at the University of Virginia before serving on his coaching staffs with the U.S. national team and Galaxy. "My team will play a little differently than his teams, but having said that, there's things that I've learned from him."
Onalfo's Galaxy will be, according to him, a slightly more attack-oriented team, and one he believes will be a top contender despite the departure of so many big names, including Robbie Keane.
"If you look at what is penciled in as our starting group, it's a strong team," Onalfo said. "Having said that, we all know in MLS or any league in the world you have to have depth to be successful and I believe we have that."
If there is a position that has Galaxy fans concerned, it is at forward, where Keane and Alan Gordon have left. Gyasi Zardes is expected to step in and be the team's lead striker, but Onalfo also is counting on a trio of young forwards he knows very well to help pick up the slack.
"We have Jack McBean, Ariel Lassiter and Jose Villarreal that provide depth," Onalfo said. "Those guys have scored a lot of goals at the Galaxy II level. Can that translate to MLS? I believe it can."
The bigger question is whether Onalfo's coaching style will translate. He stands by his work in Kansas City, maintaining his long-held belief that he got a raw deal when Peter Vermes fired him and took over as head coach. Onalfo rebounded from that firing by landing the D.C. United job, but he didn't even last a full year before being replaced by Ben Olsen.
"In D.C. I thought I had three years to do something great and that wasn’t the case," Onalfo said. "I learned that sometimes you don’t have as much time as you think.
"I think anybody that achieves anything great has had to deal with adversity," Onalfo added. "I think that gives me confidence going into (the Galaxy job), and also gives me drive and motivation to make the most of this because of how those past experiences happened. That drives me."
Almost a decade removed from his time in Kansas City, and seven years on from his stint at D.C. United, Onalfo looks back at the younger version of himself and sees the areas where he has improved himself.
"Maybe I was a little too forgiving, and maybe too patient back then," Onalfo said. "I’m less patient now. I know what I want, and how I want to play and what I want to do."
Now, Onalfo finds himself about to embark on the most significant job of his coaching career.
"Winning games is hard work, and this is one of the biggest clubs in the league, if not the biggest," Onalfo said. "But I'm very optimistic. I believe we have a very good team, and I'm ready to get started."