Chivas USA is the expansion team that turned around a disastrous debut season to become a playoff regular, but the post-season has become the next major hurdle.
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 right.
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 deal.
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 injured).
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 end.
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 that hurdle.
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 Razov.
Zac Lee Rigg is an associate editor of Goal.com