With a week to go until the start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season, the LA Galaxy are engaged in a very public game of chicken.
The team's primary supporters' groups -- the LA Riot Squad, the Angel City Brigade, the Galaxians, the Galaxy Outlawz and the Ghost Ultras Galaxy -- are in revolt over the continued presence of Galaxy president Chris Klein and technical director Jovan Kirovski, the two common threads in the Galaxy's epic downfall since last winning MLS Cup in 2014. The groups have threatened to boycott matches until the two are gone.
The Galaxy's response has been to try to talk the groups down, albeit to no avail. While the organization has said it has listened to the groups' concerns and is willing to engage further, neither Klein nor Kirovski is going anywhere. Meanwhile, the organization has stated that ticket sales for the team's season opener against city rivals LAFC at the Rose Bowl are approaching 70,000.
"There's things out there that fans and supporters can impact, and there's things that they're probably not going to impact," Galaxy sporting director and manager Greg Vanney said. "And so then it just becomes a distraction, because it's not going to change anything. I hope that there's a resolution, and the supporters' groups -- who are really important to all of us, and to the players -- find the right way, whatever the resolution is for them to show up, because it's probably not going to be 'Chris out.'"
The supporters' groups engaged in a protest prior to the Galaxy's preseason game on Feb. 4 at Dignity Health Sports Park, complete with "Klein Out" signs. There were also protests on Feb. 16 at the team's road jersey unveiling at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles, but a fuller picture of the supporters' dissent might be visible on March 18, when the Galaxy host the Vancouver Whitecaps at DHSP, their usual home venue. Anyone who has been to club's longtime home knows how the groups contribute to the atmosphere. If it's dead quiet, how much of an impact will it have?
"I think it will shock the Galaxy," said Andrew Alesana, president of the LA Riot Squad. "I think the Galaxy position is, 'Let it go. Let it pass. Time heals all wounds,' type thing. But I don't think this is going to be good for them."
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This isn't by any means the first fan protest in MLS history; far from it. Some segments of the Portland Timbers fan base are determined to oust owner Merritt Paulson for his handling of allegations of sexual harassment against Paul Riley and domestic violence against Andy Polo. Before that, supporters of the Timbers and Seattle Sounders protested the league's ban on the Iron Front flag.
The Galaxy's situation is purely related to on-field matters and in that respect, there is plenty of substance behind the groups' dissatisfaction. Since that aforementioned MLS Cup triumph in 2014, and especially following the departure of GM and manager Bruce Arena following the 2016 campaign, the Galaxy haven't been among the league's elite. In 2017, they finished dead last in the league. Since then, the team has burned through four head coaches -- five if you include the two interim stints filled by Dominic Kinnear -- and three different GMs. Not even the fleeting, electric presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for all of his goals and bravura, changed the team's on-field performance to a great degree.
This has coincided with the rise of LAFC, who have claimed two Supporters' Shields and an MLS Cup, including a Shield/Cup double last season, since their inaugural season in 2018.
Increasing the frustration was a pair of additional developments. Buried by the news crush of the World Cup was MLS' announcement on Dec. 2 that the Galaxy would be penalized for carrying too many designated players on their roster in 2019 due to the fact that Cristian Pavon should have counted as a designated player. The team was fined $1 million, had its pot of allocation money reduced by $1 million, and is banned from bringing in players from abroad during this summer's transfer window. Former GM Dennis te Kloese, now with Dutch club Feyenoord, will have to apply for reinstatement should he ever return to MLS, while Klein was banned from having any involvement in sporting matters during the current transfer window, set to last until April 24.
Yet rather than cut ties with Klein, the Galaxy announced on Jan. 12 they were giving him a multiyear contract extension. That proved to be the last straw for the supporters' groups, who announced their plans for the boycott the very next day.
"This is not a snap decision because of the cheating," Alesana said. "It's not a snap decision because LAFC won a championship. It's been a slow trickle and slow decay of our front office for 10 years." Manny Martinez, president of the Galaxy Outlawz, added, "The lack of transparency, the lack of accountability, it all adds up to: How can we keep going like this?"
For Klein, it means carrying on as he has been, minus any connection to the sporting side of the organization. When asked about the league's investigation that uncovered the wrongdoing and how it was discovered, Klein declined to go into any details.
"We worked with [MLS] on the investigation and gave them everything," he said. "It was a rule violation, and we accepted where they came out and are looking forward and moving on from it. We didn't want it to happen and we take responsibility, but we're ready to move on."
When asked what his responsibility was in regard to what happened, Klein would say only, "Look, I'm the leader of the club, so there's responsibility there."
And yet Klein is still in charge, even as the calls for his ouster become louder. And yes, he hears them.
"It hurts personally, I'm not going to lie," he said. "But I've been charged with leading this club, and I signed a multiyear extension to do that. We both want the same thing. We both want our club to win, and to have success. When we don't, I feel it the same way."
Klein expressed similar sentiments when it came to his track record. Since 2014, the Galaxy have missed the playoffs four times and haven't progressed past the conference semifinals. This has led to accusations that owner AEG cares only about finances and not on-field performance.
"I know that they want accountability, and there's some decisions that have been made in the past that if I could go back and change them, I would, but I can't," Klein said. "I'm incredibly optimistic about where we are right now and going into the third year under Greg's leadership."
The fans also are calling for the firing of Kirovski, who has managed to stay in his current role throughout the past decade, regardless of who the manager or GM was, or how the team performed. Pinning down where his responsibilities begin and end has been something of a mystery. One former colleague, who asked not to be identified, said that Kirovski "did whatever he wanted." While he was hailed for clinching the deals that brought in the likes of Ibrahimovic and Riqui Puig, others like Douglas Costa and Kevin Cabral haven't fared as well. Kirovski was widely viewed as pushing for players whom managers didn't want -- the disappointing Giovani dos Santos is a prime example -- although that's a sentiment that Klein has previously denied.
But Kirovski has the trust of both Vanney and Klein. Kirovski was teammates with both back in his playing days, and Vanney feels Kirovski's contacts allow him to sit at the table with sporting directors from around the world. Vanney said there's also "zero confusion" about where Kirovski's responsibilities begin and end.
"He and I work well together," Vanney said of Kirovski. "He has an understanding of the vision of how I want to play."
In a bid to bring supporters back into the fold, the Galaxy met with the groups on Jan. 17. The Galaxy were represented by Vanney and Dan Beckerman, CEO of AEG. According to Alesana, Beckerman backed Klein and spoke of how he does things behind the scenes that fans don't see.
The fact that, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Galaxy set revenue records last year for ticket sales and sponsorship provides some insight as to why Klein is valued. It also raises the question: What does AEG value more: a successful business or a winning team? The past 10 years have shown you can have one without the other, although at some point, a lack of on-field success is bound to affect the business side of things.
In the meeting, Vanney also attempted to share his plans for the club going forward. He told ESPN that the Galaxy need to do a better job of "telling our story."
None of what Beckerman and Vanney had to say was convincing, so much so that the supporters' groups collectively decided that a meeting scheduled for Jan. 27, with Klein in attendance, wouldn't be productive. The two sides haven't met since. "I've had this meeting before. I've had this meeting before with Klein, one-on-one," Alesana said. "I've been listened to for a long time, and nothing's changed, so I don't see this meeting leading to anything positive for us."
The staying power of such a protest is always an open question. As the Timbers fans' protest over the Iron Front flag showed, dialogue is usually the path forward. That doesn't seem available at the moment. Can fans stay away, even if the team does well?
"It's going to hurt. Even if the team doesn't do well, it still hurts," Martinez said. "You ask the players to sacrifice their bodies, game in, game out, for the crest, the jersey, the team, the coach. We are out there with them, but when we feel that we're not being valued, it's kind of a slap in the face to us. It's heartbreaking."
The home game on March 18 will reveal how much.