Justin Braun has emerged as a promising American striker, scoring seven goals this season for Chivas USA.
With just five wins in 18 matches, it's tempting to think Saturday's match against Chivas USA should be an easy one for the Sounders. The Sounders have just gone through what was one of the toughest stretches of their season -- with five of the past six MLS opponents being in the thick of the playoff race -- and would seem to be getting a break just as they enter what will be the busiest period in their brief MLS history.
As coach Sigi Schmid pointed out this week, thinking like that would be a mistake.
"Chivas is a completely different team than they were even three weeks ago," Schmid saying, while noting several personnel moves. "They are a team that needs to get points now, just like we do, and being at home they want to try and get their three points. It’s going to have a playoff-type of intensity to it because for them they are getting to that point of the season, with the games remaining, that pretty soon it’s not going to be feasible for them to get there. It’s going to be a playoff-type intensity, for sure."
Chivas USA has 12 games left in their regular season, so just about anything is possible. If they are going to make a playoff run, though, it will have to start soon. So far, they have claimed just 18 points in 18 matches and are trailing the No. 8 team by eight points.
Last week's 2-1 loss at Toronto (the team in the final playoff spot) was certainly a blow. The Goats had entered that match riding a four-match unbeaten streak, the longest of their season, and had been looking much improved. During that streak, they beat Columbus and tied Real Salt Lake.
Leading their charge has been 23-year-old (but three-year MLS veteran) Justin Braun. In the Goats' past six matches, Braun has scored five goals, including four in one two-game stretch.
Braun has scored seven goals this season and was two spectacular saves away from having two more in the loss to Toronto.
That match seemed to provide a pretty good snapshot of Chivas USA's so far frustrating season. As bad as their record is, many of the statistical indicators suggest a team that is stuck in a serious strain of bad luck.
Against Toronto, the shots were even, 14-14 and they managed to get half of theirs on goal. Toronto keeper Stefan Frei was once again, as he's been much of the season, at the top of his game and made several spectacular saves beyond the two he made against Braun. The only goal he allowed was on a Giancarlo Maldonaldo penalty kick.
"I thought we did everything possible to tie the game," Chivas USA coach Martin Vásquez said. "We created chances, we had the ball, we pressured, we went at them – but it wasn’t enough. We can talk about all the chances that we had, but if we don’t put them away, they bite you."
For the season, the Goats are outshooting their opponents (11.00-10.67 per game) and have only been outscored 25-22 which is nearly identical to the Sounders. They have not lost a match by more than one goal since May 8 and seem to be settling into an attacking style, while not giving up much on the other end.
"Defensively they were very good," Schmid said of what he's seen recently. "The midfielders and forwards did a good job of pressuring the opponents. They made it difficult for you to play and, as a result, they won balls back and took advantage of their opportunities when they had opportunities."
All of this has come in the midst of some heavy roster turnover. Chivas USA have already started more players than any other MLS side (27) and have featured a league-high 30 different players on their 24-man roster. In the past month alone, they've added Maldonaldo (a former Venezuelan national team player), midfielder Rodolfo Espinoza (who has played in the Mexican First Division) and forward Alan Gordon (who began the season as a starter for the Galaxy). They've also recently regained the services of midfielder Paulo Nagamura after he spent six months in the Mexican First Division. Jonathan Bornstein is also back in the fold after missing several games with a knee injury.
To make room for these moves they've loaned Chukwudi Chijindu and Maykel Galindo to USSF-D2 sides. Another notable absence is Sacha Klejstan, who has since moved to first-division Belgian side Anderlecht.
"I have known Sacha for a long time and he has been at Chivas now for a while so it will be a little bit different with him not being there," Schmid said.
The other big change for Chivas USA is the return of Zach Thornton as the starting goalkeeper. Dan Kennedy had started the past six matches while Thornton was out with an injury, but suffered his own injury against Toronto. Thornton had a pair of shutouts against the Sounders last season and has recorded two clean sheets this season in 13 starts.