Chivas USA is no longer a bad team. Though, that may not matter, they were one of the ones that had Seattle's number for most of the MLS era. Saturday's 7:30 PM game should be entertaining. Both sides are defense first teams with offensive players who are inconsistent, yet able to take over any game against any team. KING 5 has the broadcast on the memorial day weekend, so while many of you may be out of town, you are more likely to be able to see the game.
With the recent trades acquiring Danny Califf and Juan Agudelo (now back in Carson after training with the United States National Team) Chivas looks a bit different. If there's one thing that becomes apparent quickly in our three questions with The Goat Parade is that Robin Frasier is making the team over in his fashion. If they aren't playoff contenders now, they should be soon.
SaH: Most teams that try to rebuild on the fly look hapless and ineffective while doing it. Chivas USA seems to have done it right. Why do outsiders see the trades in a positive light?
tGP: Obviously, we can't fully assess Chivas' moves until after the season, so it could end up going horribly wrong. But the trades last week for Danny Califf and Juan Agudelo look good and have led to immediate results, as Chivas have picked up four points since they joined the team. So far so good it would appear.
Clearly, Califf and Agudelo (who is away with the U.S. Men's National Team this week) are not the only reasons for Chivas improvement in recent games. I think the real reason that the midseason personnel moves look good is because Robin Fraser has been rebuilding the roster since he arrived. He traded for Nick LaBrocca just prior to the 2011 season. He wasn't afraid to ship out Justin Braun, a fan favorite with major problems with consistency, and in hindsight leaving Zarek Valentin unprotected for the Expansion Draft doesn't seem like such a hapless move. The club's scouting seems to have improved tremendously this year, as Chivas have signed two very good players from Ecuador, Oswaldo Minda and Miller Bolanos, and signed a pair of promising Colombians in John Valencia and Jose Correa. Fraser also signed Rauwshan McKenzie, a center back who was buried on the depth chart at Real Salt Lake who has been a revelation now that he's getting a chance to play. And of course they obtained James Riley, who's been a big upgrade at right back over Valentin.
In all, only six players on this team predate Fraser's arrival. Make no mistake: this is Fraser's team, and he is fully responsible for Chivas' fortunes. But there is optimism surrounding this team that hasn't really been present for some time, and that is exciting.
SaH: The backline is stable outside of Pearce/Califf, is that due to lack of options, or because they are just that good?
tGP: I have to admit I'm a little worried Chivas' defense will revert to their late-2011 form, when the sturdy performances melted away and they were prone to giving up early goals and never catching up. This season, the defensive issue has been that Chivas have given up late goals to drop points, which is also worrisome. But Chivas are tied for sixth in goals allowed, and except for the bad loss to Colorado, every game has been within a one goal margin, win or lose. I think left back Ante Jazic is having another strong season, and as I mentioned Riley has been an improvement at right back. The other big change has been the second center back this season. McKenzie has been terrific, but Valencia has played two games and has looked quite good as well. I think one hope Chivas fans have of Califf is that he can provide more consistency than Pearce. Although Pearce is younger, he's been more inconsistent this season, and I was wondering if he should be playing as a full back after all. Califf is definitely a center back, so hopefully he will not be prone to mental lapses that plagued Pearce at times.
SaH: Conversely the midfield/forward and tactics seem to shift quite a bit. Why is this? With JPA and Agudelo will Chivas stick with a two forward set?
tGP: The Goats have picked up their scoring the last four matches, thank goodness (although they've still only scored four goals in that span), but I think Fraser is still trying to figure out what the best attacking lineup is for this team. I doubt Angel will play every game from here on out. Instead, he'll probably play 20-25 matches this season, with some of those appearances coming off the bench. Correa has looked good so far with Chivas, as he's scored two goals in four appearances, and he seems to be a player who can lead the line. And Agudelo is sure to get starts, although I know Fraser will not hesitate to sit him if he's resting on his laurels.
It is practically impossible to predict Fraser's lineups and tactics from game to game, but I think he will either go with two forwards or a three-man front line with fluid winger/forwards on the flanks. He started the season with a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 formation, which was a disaster as Chivas kept losing 1-0, but since he's started playing two or three players up top the team has started scoring and I imagine he'll stick with more attacking players. But I think the lineup will continue to be juggled until the best attacking players step up and fully claim their places.
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tGP: Seattle has started the season well, but it seems like the defense has improved considerably, as they have allowed the fewest goals in the league. What has changed to improve the defense? Or have the midfield and goalkeeper made the difference?
SaH: I had thought that the defense was better because of the ability to rotate tactical options into the starting lineup while forcing everyone to be in top form match to match. Now though the troubles with a high amount of defensive rotation are starting to cause communication issues. The defense wasn't as good as it seemed in the first ten games, but it's also not as bad as it's looked from the scoreline in the last two games.
Only four shots were put on frame in those matches, all became goals. The talent is strong. Zach Scott can mark a great player out of a game. Jeff Parke may not be fast, or as strong as other CBs, but he reads the game at a national team level. Patrick Ianni uses his strength to battle the bulls of MLS. If Leo Gonzalez is back to full health he'll provide a defensive option, or Sigi can go with Marc Burch to help more in the attack. The options are individually strong, they need to play like that again.
tGP: Speaking of goalkeeping, the Sounders' new starter Michael Gspurning has been out injured and Bryan Meredith has come into his place. How has the youngster played in Gspurning's absence?
SaH: Meredith isn't as good as Gspurning, but he's got enough talent to start in the league for several years. His reactions are great. He commands the backline well for one so young. His service is low and accurate. Where he gets into trouble sometimes is reading the game. That was made so clear in the Crew's second goal against Seattle on Wednesday night. Defending the cross is also a little bit of a weakness.
tGP: Like Chivas, Seattle are set to begin U.S. Open Cup play next week. Are the Sounders going for another USOC title, or has the emphasis shifted to the league or CONCACAF Champions League as the main objective for this team?
SaH: Seattle's FO proved that the US Open Cup and getting a 4th straight Cup is part of their plan for the year when they bought the right to host their first match of 212 from the Atlanta Silverbacks. This is only one of their goals though, and not the largest. It isn't an MLS Cup or bust year, but the MLS Cup is the major goal of 2012. To attempt these goals is going to place pressures throughout the 30 man roster. Sigi will continue to shift lineups. Already young rookie-ish players Caskey, Rose, Meredith, Sivebaek and Cato have played roles in important MLS games. David Estrada is now the vital roleplayer on the squad and started against Santos Laguna. Schmid wants to give players chances, generally they succeed. But this year it's going to be as hard as ever, most MLS teams can't think about these goals, even then, most fail. The test will be how close Seattle can get.