By Zac Lee Rigg
With four years of Major League Soccer history behind it, Chivas USA
has qualified for the playoffs the last three years running. However,
each and every time, the Los Angeles-based club has fallen at the
first hurdle. Now that Chivas USA is established as one of the toughest teams in the
Western Conference, a quarterfinal elimination is seen as failure.
Last Season: 2008 was a season of injury for Chivas USA. Star European
signing Rafael Wicky managed to start just one game before succumbing
to injury. 2007's team-top-scorer Maykel Galindo only started five
times as he suffered with persistent injuries. All through the thin
squad, players dropped out in important positions. Head coach Preki put out 30 different starting lineups in 32 games, and his combined squad
missed 183 man-matches through injury. Each game had an average of six
players missing through injury, more than half a starting eleven.
It got so bad that striker Ante Razov, who missed a chunk of the
season himself through injury, demanded an overhaul after crashing out
of the playoffs against Real Salt Lake.
“I think everything needs to be assessed, from training methods, from
guys’ professionalism, to our workout programs,” he said. “I think
everything has to be looked at.”
Despite the injuries and stop-start nature of the season, Chivas
managed to finish second in the West, behind a dominant Houston
Dynamo. However, the playoffs proved the club's undoing once more, as
the plucky RSL advanced instead of the California club.
Dearly Departed: The only major departure from the roster has been
Francisco Mendoza. The diminutive Mexican midfielder left and joined Chivas
USA's sister club, Chivas de Guadalajara. Despite being a fan favorite
and exciting crowds with mazy runs, Mendoza struggled to be effective
offensively, as his finishing and crossing let him down. Toward the
end of the season, Preki moved him into the backline, and used
Mendoza's pace and work ethic to mold a decent left back. However,
with Jonathan Bornstein fit again, the Chivas USA original's loss
won't be felt very strongly.
Some other minor players left the club as well: fullback Alex Zotinca,
midfielders Kraig Chiles, Keith Savage, and Daniel Paladini, strikers
Anthony Hamilton, Dejair, and Roberto Nurse.
The only important name still up in the air is captain Claudio Suarez, who is
considering retirement. At 40 years old, he's probably earned that
New Faces: The club has spent most of the offseason trying to keep its
stars in California rather than find new additions. Sacha Kljestan's
move to Europe collapsed at the last moment as the transfer window
snapped shut. Ante Razov was convinced to sign a new deal despite
rumors that he wanted to leave, and Sasha Victorine was given a longer
In a trade with city-rivals LA Galaxy, Chivas USA picked up Canadian
Ante Jazic. Predominantly a left fullback, Jazic will slot into the
defense, pushing Bornstein up into the midfield to accommodate for the
loss of Mendoza.
Of Chivas' three SuperDraft selections – Michael Lahoud, Jamie Franks,
and Kyle Christensen – Wake Forest's Lahoud is expected to have the
largest impact in the upcoming season. A creative midfielder, it's
hoped he can help link the midfield to the attack.
Eduardo Lillingston, a Mexican striker, is on trial from Chivas de
Guadalajara. Like most offseasons for the club, there have been
rumblings of a high-profile Mexican designated player signing, but
nothing has materialized.
Dan Kennedy (GK) – He'll face pressure from
experienced Zach Thornton, but expect Kennedy's quick reflexes and
composed play to win out.
Jonathan Bornstein (D) – The versatile American international might
see more time in the midfield this season, but either way he's one the
side's best players.
Bobby Burling (D) – The youngster impressed every time he played last
season. He is the most mobile of the Goats' center backs as well, and
should edge out Jim Curtin if Claudio Suarez does retire (or is
Shavar Thomas (D) – The Jamaican is first choice when fit.
Lawson Vaughn (D) – Another who struggled with injuries in 2008, if
Vaughn can regain fitness he offers an explosive attacking option from
deep on the right flank. If not, expect veteran Carey Talley to cover.
Rafael Wicky (M) – He showed in brief glimpses last season that he's
one of the most talented players in the league. That the club
management was willing to sign the experienced Swiss international to
another expensive year-long deal shows that they are expecting him to
play a part this time around.
Paulo Nagamura (M) – The Brazilian sits the deepest of Chivas'
midfielders, almost on top of the defense, and provides the base on
which the rest of the attack is built.
Jesse Marsch (M) – The fiery captain and veteran of 13 MLS seasons is
the terrier that spurs on the team.
Sacha Kljestan (M) – He's probably gone by August for European shores,
but until then the mercurial talent will be charged with running the
offense. He enters this year as one of the league's elite players.
Alecko Eskandarian (F) – Despite appearing in only 11 matches last
year (starting in eight), Eskandarian scored five goals to tie with
Ante Razov and Kljestan for joint top-goalscorer of the team. The 2004
MLS Cup MVP adds tenacity and verve to the attack.
Maykel Galindo (F) – The Cuban's pace adds a different dimension to
the Chivas attack that is difficult to replace.
Best of the Rest:
Keepers: Zach Thornton and Lance Parker
Defenders: Carey Talley, Jim Curtin, Claudio Suarez, Ante Jazic
Midfielders: Sasha Victorine, Jorge Flores, Michael Lahoud, Gerson
Mayen, Jamie Franks
Forwards: Ante Razov, Justin Braun, Atiba Harris, Kyle Christensen
Season Storylines: There will be three big stories woven through
Chivas' season: 1. Avoiding injuries, 2. The Kljestan problem, and 3.
The playoff jinx.
1.Chivas have kept the core of the team that topped the Western
Division in 2007. That solid base plays as a unit and is difficult to
break down. Much depth has been added, but if another plague of
injuries hits again, Preki could be prematurely gray before season's
2.Sacha Kljestan narrowly missed leaving for Europe, and is expected
to move in the July transfer window. The team struggled when he missed
games last season, as no one else was able to offer the link between
midfield and attack that he did. Dejair, another creative option, has
already left. Wicky's vision will help, but if rookie Lahoud doesn't
settle into the pace of the league and Kljestan isn't replaced, the
team's offense will be hurting.
3.When Chivas qualified for the playoffs in 2006 in their second year
of existence, that alone was a success. In 2008, missing out on the
semifinals for the third year running was seen as massive failure. The
team has yet to win a playoff round, and will be desperate to overcome
Predicted Placement: Expect the Goats to qualify for the playoffs for
a fourth year running. The West is still the weaker division, and
Chivas join the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake as early favorites
to lead it. Once into the playoffs, it's down to luck as much as
anything. Given their injury woes and disappointing elimination last
year, one has to think this team is due a turn of good fortune.
Did You Know? The roster of Chivas USA boasts five ex-Galaxy players:
Shavar Thomas, Ante Jazic, Paulo Nagamura, Sasha Victorine, and Ante
Zac Lee Rigg is an associate editor of Goal.com