It can’t possibly be so simple, can it? Surely, the reasons for Chivas USA’s first-round exit from the playoffs don’t begin and end with the absence of starting forwards Maykel Galindo and Ante Razov. There has to be something else. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really know. On some unconscious level, Chivas USA has taken over the role that the Kansas City Wizards had held previously – e.g. they’re the team I’m most likely to forget. The funny thing about that is the impression that I’m not alone. For those unfamiliar with the regular season practices of this space, I compiled something called Collective Power Rankings, which amounted to averaging all the independently compiled power rankings I could find and averaging the numbers. Somewhere way back – further back than the oldest collective rankings I could find (well, that used Chivas USA as a tag) – I, along with everyone except Sideline Views’ Luis Bueno, suddenly noticed a couple things about Chivas USA.
First, they had a stellar record at home. More significantly, however, they had an unbelievable defensive record at home: by the time the All-Star break rolled around, Chivas had surrendered just two goals at home on the season (OK, this gets a little silly because when they play the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center – e.g. their home ground – Chivas counts as the home team only half the time). No less significantly, a weird, early-August layoff from league play had them slowly gaining games in hand over their Western Conference rivals; and all of them – except the Houston Dynamo, who were tearing shit up around the same time – were stumbling.
Suddenly, everyone had a reason to watch Chivas. And when the team ripped through those games in hand – they went 7-1-3 from the break to the end of September, including two wins over LA that reversed the top-dog-bottom-dog arrangement at the Home Depot Center – the rest of Major League Soccer (MLS) had cause for anxiety. This was where I started watching the team.
This turned out to be a curious experience. While it’s true that one can’t argue with results, one can argue with style. And, in too many of the games I saw (and by no means did I see them all), Chivas hardly looked dominant. Indeed, they looked disjointed more than once and not a few of those wins came courtesy of timely goals and stellar goalkeeping from Brad Guzan. When Chivas was on, however, they played as well as any MLS team with quick possession passing through midfield when they had the ball and firm organization all over the field when they did not. But the best games I saw out of Chivas came with the two ritual humiliations of LA; it probably helped these came in LA’s darkest hours, but a look at my notes (here and here) tells me these weren’t even close.
Given the above, I wasn’t so surprised when Chivas limped a little into the playoffs. They ended the season in a funk (I repeatedly wondered about fatigue by then) – they went 1-1-2 in October and that win came against Real Salt Lake – and, to make matters worse, yeah, there were the injuries to Razov and Galindo to consider; Galindo managed at least one of the post-season games, albeit with a hobble, and Razov never came. In a sense, then, the question that started this overview gets a tentative “yes” for an answer. If you refer back to Chivas’ late-season formula for success, you’ll note that it mentions “stellar goalkeeping and timely goals” (if in reverse order). Without Razov and with only half-a-Galindo, the timely goals dried up and no one else could deliver.
At the same time, relying on forwards amounts to counting on sunshine and leaving your raincoat at home. Something bigger was wrong.
– As noted above, Chivas handled their turn under the spotlight with aplomb, going 7-1-2 just when the world started watching (OK, maybe it was just me).
– In all honesty, Chivas managed the kind of consistency that only the top MLS teams did – e.g. winning here, tying there, chuck in a loss, then repeat. There’s a reason they finished near top.
What Went Right
– Chivas’ home record bears flagging ‘cause it was kinda nuts. They may have only edged DC United in points earned at home – 34 to 33; Houston and New England’s 28 points were next closest – but they held a more favorable edge in goal differential and blew DC out of the water in terms of goals conceded: 8 to DC’s 22. Even Houston’s league-leading defense surrendered three more goals at home.
– Maykel Galindo was a brilliant acquisition and his pairing with Ante Razov bordered on the revelatory. Galindo stretched the defense, while Razov clinically exploited the openings. Between them they had half of Chivas’ 46 goals.
– The midfield worked well…at least till it didn’t. Paulo Nagamura proved a solid mid-season acquisition, while Sacha Kljestan continued to build his reputation; seriously, look at his assist numbers.
– What can one say? In spite of having few “name” players, Chivas had the second-best defensive team in MLS. There was Claudio Suarez, Shavar Thomas, and…and…um, that dude…the blacky guy with the blonde hair…Vaughn? Lawson Vaughn. Seriously, the more remarkable thing is that Vaughn didn’t strike me as all that good. And Jonathan Bornstein had kind of an underwhelming year, so far as I saw it anyway. But, collective, those cats, along with Alex Zotinca, kicked some ass. Oh yeah…there was Guzan, too.
– Hey, they won the Western Conference title. Hard to knock that.
– After the last bullet above, a first-round exit from the playoffs can’t help but feel like a let down.
– Depth at forward or depth elsewhere: the way the scoring dried up had to set off alarm bells.
Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back)
Brad Guzan: But can they keep him?
Maykel Galindo: He’s young. He’ll get healthy.
Sacha Kljestan: There’s a lot to like about this one…seriously.
Jesse Marsch: Like having a coach on the field at times…gets one wondering what will happen if Preki takes the Red Bull New York job.
Anyone Who Ought to Leave
Ante Razov: Though only conditionally. Get the right kind of player for him and I’d trade the aging forward in a heartbeat.
Francisco Mendoza: If there’s a player I feel tailed off sharply by season’s end, it’s Mendoza. I’ve read he’s leaving here and there and it wouldn’t hurt, in my mind, if he did.
What They’re Needin’
– Attacking options. At first glance, I’m tempted to write depth at forward, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be that. Put another way, acquiring Amado Guevara wasn’t the wrong approach. If he weren’t such a putz, Guevara would be a great weapon. I’d go so far as to say a player like Guevara – but minus the crazy – would be the best thing for this team.
– Failing that, however, a decent forward for depth would suffice. If they can get someone as, um, affordable as FC Dallas’ Abe Thompson, that would do it. If they could get Kenny Cooper, that’d be even better (yeah, I know; not gonna happen).
– You have to wonder about their defense. With Suarez a year older, Guzan perhaps on his way out, and able back-up ‘keeper Preston Burpo gone north, it seems pretty certain things won’t look the same in Chivas’ D. Rebuilding that defensive unit will be hard enough – and I can’t see them improving on it.