Robert Mora / LA Galaxy

A cancer survivor, Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo has focused his life on developing young players

It’s impossible not to notice the aura of positivity that surrounds LA Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo.

Whether it is coaching the club’s Reserve League squad or assisting the first team during training, the 42-year-old assistant coach is never too far from flashing the infectious smile that has become a staple in the Galaxy training ground.

Onalfo has plenty of reason to be excited as he has helped lead his Reserve League squad to the brink of the West Division title, but 19 years ago, next month, an event happened that forever changed the Galaxy assistant.

In 1993, at the age of 23, Onalfo had lived what few could have dreamed. A professional soccer player, Onalfo won an NCAA National Championship in 1989 at the University of Virginia with Bruce Arena at the helm.  In 1992, Onalfo served as the captain of the United States Olympic team at the Barcelona Olympic Games, helping the U.S. amass a 1-1-1 record.  However, a pair of surgeries to repair torn Achilles tendon put Onalfo’s career on hold, causing him to move in with his parents in Connecticut and return to finish his education.

Although Onalfo’s life was seemingly on the upward tick, despite the injury, one day in November, Onalfo noticed a lump in his neck. After a visit to the family doctor for a few seemingly harmless chest X-rays, on November 19th—his 24th birthday—his life changed forever.

“I came back [to the doctor] the 19th, which was my birthday, and he got the blood work and he immediately asked me to take a chest X-ray and then he proceeded to call me in his office and said, ‘why don’t you give your mother a call.’”

The idea of calling his mother shocked Onalfo to his core.

“I said, ‘I’m 24-years-old, why am I going to have my mother come in’ and he told me, ‘just do me a favor, call your mother and have her come in.’”

Onalfo soon called his mother and was given the grim news.  He was being sent to an oncologist, which stunned Onalfo, who admittedly needed his mother to inform him, what an oncologist actually was.

“I asked my mother, what is an oncologist, and she said, it’s a cancer doctor,” said Onalfo. “Long story short, we get to Doctor Abrams and he told me that I had Hodgkin’s disease and now it was a matter of staging where it is.”

In other words, determining how far along the disease was.

The diagnosis, after the two-week staging process was shocking. The doctor determined that Onalfo had stage three Hodgkin’s disease—the third most severe stage.

“It turns out I had it all through my neck, under my arms and I had a huge mass under my neck and an area in my spleen,” said Onalfo. “I had stage three, once it leaves your lymphatic system and goes to another organ then it’s really serious.”

The one-time Olympian was now a cancer patient, who needed to undergo a six-month chemotherapy treatment. Although Onalfo placed himself on a macrobiotic diet that he believed would prepare him for the rigors of the treatment, he had no idea what was in store.

“The whole theory is that you get yourself as close to death without dying, you kill all your cells and hopefully, you reproduce good cells,” said Onalfo, who admits that the injections left him with no veins on either of his arms. “It was a cumulative effect, it was difficult, chemo was brutal, but it got worse with each one because you get weaker and weaker.  I had real good news after three months, all the cancer was gone, but you had to finish your cycle which is six months.”

With the support of his family—especially his mother Linda—Onalfo’s condition was improving rapidly due to the treatments. However, he was not in the clear yet.

Admittedly cocky due to the cancer’s remission after three months, Onalfo began to exercise more and more as he looked to rebuild the fitness that made him an Olympian. Then, disaster struck as Onalfo was admitted into the hospital because a dangerously low white blood cell count—a count so low that even the common cold could have killed Onalfo.

“It was a major wake up call,” said Onalfo. “Literally, I got admitted to the hospital and I thought, ‘my cancer is gone, but the chemo could kill me.’ I wasn’t able to have any visitors, the doctors came in with masks on and it was really scary.”

But there on, what was seemingly, his deathbed, life crystallized for Onalfo and the goals of the soccer player and part-time chiropractic student became incredibly clear.

“I remember being in the hospital bed and thinking that I’m not going to be wasting my life. I was in school, I remember thinking vividly in bed, my life is soccer,” said Onalfo, getting visibly emotional at the thought. “I don’t care how, [but] I want to get back to health and I want to compete and play professionally as long as I can, it doesn’t matter what level it is and then afterward, I’m going to coach. My life became very crystal clear in terms of what I wanted to achieve.”

And return he did, even though admittedly a step lower than his previous level, eventually going on to play for Mexican side Tampico FC—where he eventually met his wife Sandra— before being selected by the Galaxy in the inaugural MLS Player Draft. Onalfo spent just a single season with the Galaxy playing 13 times for the club, but played three more seasons in MLS winning a host of trophies including the 1999 MLS Cup with D.C. United.

At the end of his playing days, Onalfo began to dive feet first into coaching, first as an assistant with D.C. United before stops as an assistant with the U.S. National Team Under-23’s as well as the full squad, serving under his former college coach, Arena.  Finally, in 2007, Onalfo was given his first head coaching job with the Kansas City Wizards, a position that he held for two seasons before returning to serve as the head coach of D.C. for the 2010 season, though he parted ways with the club in August of that year.

After two stints as a head coach—where he played a role in the development of players like Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Andy Najar and Bill Hamid—Onalfo was eager for a fresh start and to do so, he dialed Arena with a simple request.

“I remember talking to Bruce after I left D.C. I told myself, I need more time, I need to get back in the trenches and relearn my methodology and become a better coach from the ground up,” said Onalfo. “So, I told him, if you ever had a position open, whether I can be helping the academy or the reserve team and be in the trenches, to better myself as a coach, I want to do it.”

Once then-assistant coach Cobi Jones stepped down in January of 2011, Arena dialed up Onalfo and took him up on his offer.

“He provides a different point of view,” said Arena of Onalfo. “He’s a guy that supports the coach and communicates well with the players and is very studious about his job and he works hard, and complements the entire staff… He’s had his ups and downs, but he’s still young and hopefully he has a bright future.”

On Friday, Onalfo will look to further his coaching credentials as he leads his Galaxy Reserve squad against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Reserve squad in a match that will decide if LA can win the West Division title. Currently, Onalfo has led his Reserves to a 5-3-1 record, a far cry from LA’s 1-6-2 mark and last place finish in the division a year earlier.

With a balance of experienced players like Pat Noonan and Andrew Boyens as well as youngsters Jose Villarreal and Tommy Meyer, the reserves have flourished even playing a key role in LA’s qualification for the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. But regardless of if the Galaxy Reserve squad wins the division title or not, Onalfo’s impact has been felt in the development of LA’s younger players.

“The thing with Curt is that he’s focused on always doing the little things right when we play, he’s always talking about shape and getting after things so he’s given the ‘reserve guys’ a lot of confidence, telling us that when we get our opportunity to take advantage of it,” said midfielder Rafael Garcia, who has played in all nine of LA’s Reserve League games this season. “That’s one of the things that I’ve taken from him the most, it’s not easy being in the reserves and not getting as much playing time, but he’s always helped us in any way that he could so I definitely owe a lot to him.”

As for Onalfo, strengthened by the arduous moments of the past, the Galaxy assistant coach is enjoying the present and with an eye to the future. 

“I want my story to have an even happier ending than it is. I’ve had some great successes as a head coach and some very difficult situations as a coach, that’s all part of my development, but I know I have better days ahead, in whatever role that I’m in whether it’s an assistant coach role or a head coach role,” said Onalfo. “My attitude is to focus on being the best that I possibly can and to help Bruce and the Galaxy be successful. That’s my focus and whatever is down the line, they will be great things I’m sure.”

Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com