CARSON, Calif. — One of the underlying themes of last year’s MLS Cup was that of patience, and the coaches who thrive when owners are willing to let a man make a team his own.
Both FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman and Colorado Rapids boss Gary Smith took the podium and thanked the front offices that had ignored the doubters, trusted their instincts and let each coach mold their respective teams into surprising but equally credible MLS title contenders.
There was no direct mention of Curt Onalfo – but in some sense, he was a major player in all of this, too.
Roughly four months before MLS Cup celebrated both FC Dallas’ and the Rapids’ meteoric rise, Onalfo was dumped from his post at D.C. United, just eight months into his own tenure in the nation’s capital.
Onalfo’s firing was a professional casualty certainly not unfamiliar to the league, but MLS front offices generally seem less inclined to hit the eject button as hastily as in other sports. Still, it was a relatively stunning hammer blow from D.C. United, who had never parted ways with a coach midseason in 15 years as a flagship franchise, and suddenly anointed a wide-eyed Ben Olsen as an interim coach at just 33 years old.
That’s one reason why Onalfo’s abrupt dismissal was such a stunner, but the extra sentiment and strangeness was inevitably linked to his fortunes even before the DC flop. He piloted a floundering Kansas City Wizards franchise into the postseason in 2007 and 2008 before the plug was pulled during a late-season swoon in 2009, and one of the league’s most promising young coaches was left looking for a job.
One year later, he's had two highly contentious and very public fallouts. That’s usually enough to send a soccer coach into a career in banking or real estate. But not Curt Onalfo.
“I never let anybody define success for me,” Onalfo told MLSsoccer.com. “To this day, I won’t let people in other positions who make decisions define whether or not I was successful.”
After the end of his days in DC, Onalfo spent roughly five months recharging his batteries. Much of that time was spent self-reflecting and enjoying time with his family before he eventually realized two very clear objectives: He wanted to coach again, and he needed to work with people he trusted.
“In this business, it’s extremely important to surround yourself with competent people,” said Onalfo. “Competent and trustworthy.”
What he ended up with is a dream scenario of sorts playing out this season at The Home Depot Center, where Onalfo is an assistant in one of the most familiar and successful coaching staffs in the league at the LA Galaxy.
The father figure there is, of course, Bruce Arena, who has a reputation for protecting and honoring the alliances he’s made over the years. Associate head coach Dave Sarachan – who, like Onalfo, was hastily dropped during a dry spell for the Chicago Fire midway through the 2007 season in favor of Juan Carlos Osorio – is proof of that, having forged a bond with Arena that dates back the mid-1980s at the University of Virginia and lasted during the duo’s days with D.C. United and a stunning US run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
Sarachan was a natural choice for Arena’s reclamation project in LA in 2008, and Onalfo seems just as fitting to join up now. One look at the prominent new faces on Arena’s roster – Frankie Hejduk and Juan Pablo Angel have both played for Arena in the past – and it’s clear that this is a group of hand-picked faces Arena trusts and appreciates, even if other clubs might not.
“That’s one way to put it,” Arena said, “but they’re not on a food line here. We’re not giving these guys anything they haven’t earned. They’ve proven themselves.”
Added Sarachan, “We don’t work so much with hierarchies here. Curt comes in as one of the assistants, but we all share the responsibilities and Curt knows when to step in and step out. It’s been a smooth transition for him.”
Onalfo played for Arena at Virginia back in the late 1980s and eventually landed with his former coach at D.C. United in 1998-99. He also served as an assistant with the US national team from 2002-06 before leveraging his success there into earning the top post at Kansas City a week after his 37th birthday.
He’s far more pragmatic and tested at 41 years old, scuffed up at least a bit by turmoil in Kansas City and then the jaw-dropper with DC. That firing came less than a year after the league title went to Real Salt Lake and head coach Jason Kreis, who then guided RSL through the CONCACAF Champions League group stage last year and within a hair of taking the Supporters’ Shield from Arena and the Galaxy.
But with the knowledge he has now, Onalfo knows one owner’s trust certainly won’t set a league-wide trend of coaches on a comfortable leash.
“Every organization has a different set of circumstances,” he said, “and you never know what the situation is.”
So was D.C. United impatient?
“Obviously,” Onalfo said with a laugh. “But I’m not a person who holds grudges and spends a whole lot of negative energy worrying about those things. I’ve learned from it, and it’s made me stronger.”
“The word I would use for Curt is ‘perspective.’ You gain perspective as you get older,” Sarachan said. “Now that he’s been hired and been fired, and he’s had the responsibility of being ‘the guy,’ it gives him perspective on everything that surrounds him.”
Much of the appeal to the Galaxy job is Onalfo’s new post as the head coach of the reserves team, where Onalfo can continue to carve his own coaching identity apart from Arena. Although he’s thankful to his former boss for the current opportunity, he insists they don’t necessarily share all the same coaching habits or tendencies.
And that individuation and personal growth has been essential to his past and will again determine his future. Onalfo’s been adorned and scorned more than some coaches will be in an entire career, all within the span of one tumultuous year that left him with one instinct he’s sure he can trust.
“I would be lying if I said I don’t want to be a head coach again, because I do,” he said. “But I feel like I’m in a great situation right now … and whatever happens in the future, we’ll see.”
Join the Galaxy as they Countdown to Kickoff with a series of events and appearances for fans in the community. Galaxy players, staff, Miss LA Galaxy Court members and Galaxy Street Team will be active throughout the week engaging with fans, the public and media in order to thank them for their support and to raise awareness for the start of the 2011 MLS season. For the full schedule and and opportunities to meet the Galaxy players, visit www.lagalaxy.com/caravan.
Take your photo with the 2010 Supporters' Shield and 2009 Western Conference Championship Trophy on Tuesday, March 15 at Ye Olde King's Head before your LA Galaxy face the Seattle Sounders in MLS First Kick 2011 at 6:30 p.m. PT on ESPN/Deportes. Plus, opportunities to win tickets to the Galaxy home opener as well as an autographed jersey! MORE INFO
On Sunday, March 20, the Galaxy will host the New England Revolution in their home opener, presented by Pechanga Resort & Casino, at 5 p.m. at The Home Depot Center. The first 15,000 fans will receive 2011 magnet schedules. Tickets are available for that match, starting at 25. BUY NOW