Has Bruce Arena Finally Gone Crazy or Is He Playing the Rest of MLS for Fools?

The prevailing mantra that echoed across the Major League Soccer media landscape at the end of the 2015 MLS Season was, “Play your kids.”  FC Dallas, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the New York Red Bulls – they all made their way to the tail end of the playoffs with young rosters.  Many writers, including myself, championed the notion that aging players could no longer parlay a career in Europe into a retirement in MLS because the league had simply become too difficult for such players to guarantee success.  It is a lovely and uplifting narrative – but analysts should not conclude from the manner in which one playoff season unfolded that it must be true.

During this off-season, the LA Galaxy has signed six players over the age of thirty: Ashley Cole, Dan Kennedy, Jelle Van Damme, Jeff Larentowicz, Nigel de Jong, and Mike Magee.  Several pieces have recently been penned questioning the wisdom of bringing in older players during a time when almost every other team in MLS is making concerted efforts to get younger, including this article by Will Parchman at Top Drawer Soccer.  However, when Bruce Arena makes decisions that cause the rest of MLS and the soccer world to wring our collective hands and shake our collective heads, it is fun to play a little game called, “What is Bruce thinking?”

More than one coach wishes in retrospect he’d played this game before writing off a team built by Arena: Lothar Osiander in 1996, Javier Aguirre in 2002, Dominic Kinnear in 2011 and 2012 – they all lost games to an Arena-built side which they thought they would win. So in the event Arena smears egg on the faces of every pundit in MLS by storming the 2016 season with a squad of players in their thirties, here are four reasons why, when every other team in MLS is laying all its chips on youth, Bruce Arena is going the opposite direction.

To Build Depth

Aside from Omar Gonzalez and Juninho, the nine LA Galaxy players from the 2015 roster who will not be returning in 2016 played a total of 2763 minutes during the 2015 Season, which averages out to 307 minutes per player for the entire season.  In fact, Juninho’s 2857 minutes for the Galaxy (he played more minutes than any other LA Galaxy player last season) exceed the minutes played by those nine players combined.  The fact that the Galaxy’s 2015 roster included so many players who saw barely any field time suggests that Arena believed depth was an issue the Galaxy needed to address during the offseason.  To be fair, depth is a pivotal issue for every team in MLS: the tight spending rules incentivize coaches to invest as much of their budget as possible in their Starting XI.  To quote Jonah Hill from Moneyball, most coaches “like to keep the money on the field.”  The end result of investing heavily in the Starting XI is that there is a huge dropoff in quality between the starters and the players that occupy the remaining roster slots.

One could credibly contend that the LA Galaxy enjoy more depth than any other MLS team.  The strength of its’ Homegrown program affords the Galaxy greater flexibility under the cap than other teams.  Nonetheless, Arena’s comments at the end of the 2015 season indicate he believed injuries and international callups played a significant role in the Galaxy finishing as low in the table as it did, and that the team would benefit from shrinking that disparity in quality between the starters and remaining players on the team:

“We had 11 and 12 guys who were like that, and when you tie any international call-ups, for a while, we put some odd teams on the field,… Baggio [Husidic] was playing every position possible and then we lost him, and he was never able to get his form back. It was too late for him. It was too late for a lot of guys. We had a lot of guys come back in October, which is kind of too late.” – Bruce Arena, to Adam Serrano, on October 31, 2015

International callups and injuries could weigh even more heavily on the LA Galaxy in 2016.  This summer, Robbie Keane will be called up to play for the Republic of Ireland at UEFA Euro 2016, while Gyasi Zardes, Giovani dos Santos (and conceivably Alan Gordon) could be called in to participate in the Copa América Centenario.  It is plausible, though unlikely, that Jose Villareal will be called up for the Olympics (if the US U-23 team qualifies in its playoff game against Colombia in March).  Last season, injuries and international callups required Arena to field 25 different lineups during the Galaxy’s first 25 season games.  This summer, when Arena gets creative, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Galaxy fans could see Bradford Jamieson IV up top, Emmanuel Boateng and Raul Mendiola on the wings and either Steven Gerrard or Sebastian Lletget playing as a second striker.

The question is whether the replacements for the recently departed will contribute more than those who were released.  The position of goalkeeper is certainly more evenly matched than it was last year.  Dan Kennedy is a fine keeper but, if they impress in practice, either Brian Rowe or Clément Diop could knock him out of pole position to start as goalkeeper for the Galaxy.  As certain of my colleagues have pointed out, since his one outstanding season in 2011, Kennedy’s performance has fallen off substantially, such that he lost his starting role to Jesse Gonzalez at FC Dallas.  Among the other players the Galaxy has signed – Daniel Steres, Jeff Larentowicz, Emmanuel Boateng, Mike Magee, Jelle Van Damme, Nigel de Jong and Ashley Cole – the two players who will walk into the starting XI are De Jong and Van Damme.  However, it is at least reasonable to believe that players like Jeff Larentowicz and Mike Magee, who would start for a number of MLS teams when healthy, will see more time than Charlie Rugg or Edson Buddle did last season.  Thus, the Galaxy’s recent signings could, in part, be a response to a Galaxy team that was badly hobbled in 2015 when injuries and international duty exposed the squad as having too shallow a talent pool.

To Foster Competition Among Players for Roster Spots

When a coach builds a roster with depth in mind, it inevitably follows that there will be increased competition within the team for spots in the Starting XI.  Recent comments from Bruce Arena suggest that at least one of his aims in the off-season was to rebuild the LA Galaxy with an eye towards creating a more competitive environment within the team:

“I think last year our team wasn’t competitive enough. That’s something that Alan thrives on. Having a player like him around every day on the field is important.” – Bruce Arena, to Adam Serrano, on re-signing Alan Gordon, January 11, 2016

The Galaxy has had one of the most stable rosters in MLS over the past five years.  Stability has its upsides: the team develops intra-squad chemistry and a great rapport with the fans.  Certainly, one reason the partnership between AJ DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez was so effective was because the two had formed a symbiotic relationship with one another that was attributable to the fact they played together for the past decade.

The downside to having a stable roster is that it can lead to complacency.  Professional athletes are pathologically competitive.  However, when a player knows he is in the Starting XI, it is hard to imagine such knowledge does not seep into the player’s mind, even at a subconscious level, and impact the effort level the player puts forth.  Omar Gonzalez and Juninho always knew that, if they were healthy, they would start for the LA Galaxy, and perhaps rightly so because they were both wonderful players.  Nonetheless, for those players who know they have a starting position, e.g., Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos, one challenge the front office must contend with is how to prevent the player’s sense of security from sapping their competitive spirit.

The structure of the reconstituted squad is such that, for almost every position, there is a backup who will be vying to take the place from the first string player: Jeff Larentowicz is backing up Nigel de Jong, Dave Romney is backing up both Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme, Emmanuel Boateng is backing up Sebastian Lletget, and both Brian Rowe and Clément Diop will be looking to nab Dan Kennedy’s spot.  Thus, creating a more competitive environment could have played a role in the Galaxy’s decision to add more players who could compete for starting positions.

To Win the Concacaf Champions League

The obvious problem with the LA Galaxy’s new signings is their age.  The Galaxy will likely be the oldest team in MLS this season, with 10 players over the age of 30: Ashley Cole (35), Steven Gerrard (35), Robbie Keane (35), Alan Gordon (34), Dan Kennedy (33), Dan Gargan (33), Jelle Van Damme (32), Jeff Larentowicz (32), Nigel de Jong (31), and Mike Magee (31).

There are four major problems with bringing in older players.  First, by signing older players, the LA Galaxy minimizes the advancement opportunities for players in its Academy.  Second, the MLS season is long and, as Steven Gerrard pointed out after only half a season in MLS, the league is profoundly demanding from a physical point of view.  Players are required to travel extensively, play in extreme weather conditions and even play on artificial surfaces.  Come the dog days of summer and fall, the performances of players in their 30’s will suffer more than those of their young counterparts due to the physical requirements of the league.  Third, the older a player gets, the more likely he is to suffer from injuries.  Fourth, bringing in older players (many of whom will only play for a season and therefore may be perceived as “mercenaries”) ensures that the LA Galaxy will have yet another rebuilding job to do at the end of the 2016 season (insert conspiracy theory here about Bruce Arena retiring).

However, for the purpose of achieving goals on the imminent horizon, deploying veteran players could be effective.  The LA Galaxy has two CONCACAF Champions League games in the immediate future against Santos Laguna (on February 24 and March 1).  Due to its poor performance in 2015, the LA Galaxy did not qualify to participate in the 2016-2017 CONCACAF Champions League.  Thus, if the LA Galaxy wants to make winning the Champions League a priority, it needs to start the 2016 Season with a team that management believes can win right now.

The LA Galaxy has made clear that one of its aims is to become the best professional soccer team in North America.  From a strategic point of view, the Galaxy front office may be putting all its eggs in the short-term basket and hoping that a roster comprised of intelligent veteran players will have the legs to put in a good two months of work, just long enough to win the LA Galaxy the Champions League – the final is scheduled for April 27, 2016.  This is a high risk approach since results in a knockout tournament are impossible to predict.  Nonetheless, bringing the most prestigious trophy in the region to the LA Galaxy would certainly mitigate against any complaints fans might register come fall when the Galaxy’s veterans start lagging.

Because Older Players Can Bring Value to a Team

It is no secret that Bruce Arena likes veterans.  After the US Men’s National Team was knocked out of the 2006 World Cup during the group stage, critics suggested that Arena’s reliance on aging veterans played a role in the team’s World Cup fortunes; shortly thereafter, Arena was fired as coach of the USMNT.  Last year, Arena signed veterans like Edson Buddle and Mika Varynen to the squad, both of whom were way past their prime and proved unable to meaningfully contribute to the team.  It is therefore easy to conclude that, when Bruce Arena signs a veteran player, his prejudices are getting the better of him.  However, there are legitimate reasons why a coach would value veteran players, depending on the circumstance.

The first is that ageism is stupid.  It is one thing for a pundit to identify a player’s declining performance as evidence that his best years are behind him.  However, if the only criticism an analyst can levy against a player is his age, then the criticism is without merit.  Every year that Robbie Keane has played in MLS, he has scored more goals than the year before: the Irishman tallied 16 in 2012 and 2013, 19 in 2014, and 20 in 2015.  If Keane scores another 20 goals for the Galaxy this season, will any fan care that he did so at the age of 35?  Did Montreal Impact fans care that Didier Drogba was 37 when he scored twelve goals in twelve games for the Canadian outfit?

“We had some players that never got it going for a long period of time. They were inconsistent. That’s always troubling. Your core players have to be there game in and game out,… Not that you’re not going to have a bad game once in a while. We need Robbie Keanes. Robbie’s [someone] that you generally know what you’re getting out of every game. We need other players like that.” – Bruce Arena

The second is that, for teams that discount the price of their players due to age, a savvy team can capture value by signing an older player who is wrongly devalued by his current team.  The LA Galaxy are not renowned for smart-spending on veterans.  Arena routinely overpays for older players that contribute little on the field.  As matter of principle though, in a game of moneyball, which MLS most certainly is due to the financial rules it imposes on General Managers, the LA Galaxy could be making the right decision, depending on the price.  Fans frothing at the mouth at the prospect of the Galaxy spending $800,000 in TAM on Ashley Cole were somewhat mollified to learn the 35-year-old left back was being paid the less princely sum of $300,000.  The question is not whether a players is too old, but rather whether he is too old at a given price point.

In this case, it turns out that the Galaxy were incredibly creative in acquiring De Jong, Van Damme, and Cole – Kevin Baxter of the LA Times reported that the LA Galaxy managed to acquire Nigel De Jong for a paltry $500,000 (due to the fact that AC Milan owed him $7 million), and the Galaxy didn’t have to pay a transfer to fee to acquire any of the new imports.  Instead, the Galaxy included a provision in De Jong’s contract that his salary will increase upon the retirement of Steven Gerrard next year, at which point he will likely become a Designated Player.  Essentially, the LA Galaxy exploited the fact that each of these players were in peculiar situations at their respective clubs, and used those situations as leverage to get them on the cheap.  To put this in perspective, the $1.3 million the Galaxy are paying for De Jong, Van Damme and Cole this year, is less than what the Galaxy paid for Omar Gonzalez last year.

The third is that age affects players differently depending on their position and style of play.  Robbie Keane and Didier Drogba are still remarkably effective MLS strikers despite the fact that they both in their mid-30’s.  As forwards, neither Keane nor Drogba needs to cover the same amount of ground as a midfielder, e.g., Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Andrea Pirlo, all of whom have suffered to varying degrees in MLS.  Further, Keane’s game never was predicated on speed or athleticism.  Thus, the passage of time has diminished his game at a slower rate than it would a striker who relies heavily on blistering speed.

The Galaxy needed to improve defensively during this past off-season.  As Arena himself pointed out following the Galaxy’s loss to Seattle last October, during the final three months of the 2015 season, the Galaxy were giving up goals like it was going out of style:

We were statistically the worst team in the league over the last three games. We gave up 10 goals in our last three games… and some were gifts,… How do you correct that? That’s going to be the challenge. That part has to be corrected. We have at times been a team that can attack well, but I think that there are a couple of things that we need to tweak.” – Bruce Arena

Over the past five years, Juninho was one of the most underrated midfielders in MLS.  However, Juninho was best suited to play with a more defensively-minded partner than Steven Gerrard.  Though the transfer was allegedly made at Juninho’s request, the fact that it paved the way for the LA Galaxy to add a true defensive midfielder like Nigel De Jong makes sense.  Similarly, though the addition of Jelle Van Damme has raised eyebrows among some members of the media, Van Damme is a fearsome defender.  Given that Arena has always been reluctant to play AJ DeLaGarza as a center-back without a physically threatening partner, if DeLaGarza is going to see minutes as a center-back this season, then a partnership with Van Damme has the greatest potential for success.

“He’s a leader, he’s been Captain at Standard Liege as well, and I think he’s a guy whose suitable to help strengthen our back-line.  Given our situation last year, I think the back line wasn’t well organized.  There wasn’t enough leadership, enough vocal leadership as well, and I think van Damme will give us that.” – Bruce Arena, to Adam Serrano, on signing Jelle Van Damme, January 26, 2016

Fourth, perhaps it is a cliché, but players like Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane can bring vocal leadership and experience to a team in a fledgling league.  During Steven Gerrard’s five-month Premier League swan-song last year, the English press interviewed practically everyone who ever stepped onto a pitch with the man – they extolled many of his virtues but none more so than that of his leadership:

“Don’t forget he was 22 when I made him captain but you could see he was a natural born leader and he could have an influence and an impact on everybody.” – Gerard Houllier, on the decision to give Steven Gerrard the captaincy at Liverpool

Regardless of whether Gerrard’s legs can still carry him the same way they did when he dragged the Reds to their comeback in Istanbul, he undoubtedly brings a rich and vital body of knowledge that is invaluable to those young players in a position to learn from him. MLS does not have a Camp Nous – the only way it will get one is to build it, and that will require institutional knowledge that teams in MLS do not have.

Steve Jobs once said, “Be a yardstick of quality.  Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”  For players like Gerrard, Keane, Van Damme and De Jong, if they have good intentions, they can participate in developing an environment at the LA Galaxy that seeks and demands excellence.  Perhaps that is Bruce Arena’s highest aim for his own swan-song.

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