In search of a central midfield tandem to replace departed veterans Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura, Chivas USA coach Martin Vasquez has turned to former Akron stars Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski. Kyle McCarthy chats with the trio and previews the four midweek matches on tap tonight.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the raft of departures accompanying the end of Preki's three-season reign at Chivas USA this winter, the loss of two players stood out because of their importance to the club's recent success.
Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura established the intense mentality symbolic of how the Red-and-White played under the former American international. The experienced central midfielders crunched when they needed to crunch and possessed when they needed to possess. While the circumstances and the tactics often dictated a pragmatic approach, Marsch and Nagamura usually ran the show with success regardless of whether the opposition wanted a football match or a grisly battle.
The inevitable changing of the guard – hastened by Marsch's retirement and Nagamura's departure to Tigres – occurred during the offseason and left new coach Martin Vasquez to figure out how to replace the effective engine of the previous regime with a different model more attuned to his aesthetically-pleasing brand of possession-oriented soccer.
For the past two-and-a-half matches, Vasquez has found his answer by deploying former Akron teammates and current Chivas USA rookies Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski in deep-lying central roles as part of a five-man midfield.
“It's tough to replace those guys,” Zemanski said after the Red-and-White completed its final training session before tonight's match at New England. “They're very good players and they were great for many years. You can't really replace someone like that, but we're trying to build our legacy here and make our mark with this club and this team.”
The path toward cultivating a new tradition starts with the philosophy ingrained in the duo while they starred in college. Akron coach Caleb Porter employs a possession-oriented, attack-minded approach similar to the one Vasquez has implemented since he took charge.
“We play quick and when we lose it, we want to get it back so we can attack some more,” Zemanski said. “We were bred in that system and that's how Martin wants us to play. It makes the transition a lot easier when that's the way we feel how the game should be played and we're playing that way.”
Gavin and Zemanski intrigued Vasquez, at least in part, because of their proficiency in the type of system he wished to institute this season. The chemistry and familiarity fostered by playing together for three years in a professional incubator that has also produced Teal Bunbury and Steve Zakuani didn't hurt either.
“We feel that was their strength in how they run things in the middle,” Vasquez said. “They're well balanced – they attack, they defend and they keep it simple. When we have the ball, they provide rhythm and flow and allow us to spread the ball. When we lose the ball, they're smart and intelligent in how they react to transition. That's a big part of their game.”
Providing consistency in the center of the park represents the next big leap for the duo as they seek to keep the Red-and-White's two-match unbeaten streak alive at Gillette Stadium. The comfort of playing next to a familiar face (and a roommate) helps the adjustment process, according to both players, and it shows on the field. Gavin (five starts) has made strides to improve his consistency from match-to-match in his role as the cerebral distributor, while Zemanski (two starts) approaches training sessions and match days with an intensity befitting his more defensive deportment, Vasquez said.
In the system Vasquez has preferred in recent weeks, Gavin and Zemanski play a critical role by maintaining possession, moving the ball quickly and providing a solid foundation in central midfield so Sacha Kljestan can roam around in the attacking third to facilitate the attack. The role creates a heavy burden for Gavin and Zemanski to bear, but Vasquez said he has entrusted all of his players, regardless of experience, with an equal amount of responsibility in the club's success or failure.
If the recent weeks are any indication, Gavin and Zemanski could play a significant part in how a club once embodied by the gritty exploits of Marsch and Nagamura develops under Vasquez. In order to play a similarly integral role in the future and establish themselves as fixtures in the side, Gavin said he and Zemanski will need to lean on one quality – industry – that should link the past with the future.
“Obviously, we've been making mistakes and we're learning as we go,” Gavin said. “The veteran guys like Sacha [Kljestan], Mariano [Trujillo] and others have been helping us out and teaching us things. What it comes down to is our hard work. You going to make mistakes, but if you keep working hard, put your head down and keep fighting for the ball, everything will work out.”
- Gavin and Zemanski aren't the only teammates to find a new home with Chivas USA this season. The Red-and-White added a second player from Costa Rican side Puntarenas FC last week when it acquired midfielder Jose Macotelo on loan. Macotelo joins former and current teammate Dario Delgado in the Chivas USA squad. Vasquez said the link between his side and a fairly obscure club occurred because he benefited from the opportunity to see the duo play in person against Los Angeles during the preseason.
“The advantage was that we saw a couple of games on video where both of them did very well,” Vasquez said. “When we saw their team play against LA Galaxy, they both played. Having seen them play against an MLS opponent, we saw the qualities they had and saw that they could adjust to the level and the intensity. It helped us to go after them.”
- Vasquez said he plans to make a straight swap to replace suspended midfielder Michael Lahoud in tonight's match against New England (7:30p.m., Direct Kick). The MLS Disciplinary Committee handed Lahoud a two-match suspension for a rash challenge on Justin Mapp that went unpunished during Saturday night's 1-1 draw at Chicago.
“With one player, we should be able to make the adjustment,” Vasquez said. “In a situation like the last two games and what you've seen from the group, you hope to keep it consistent and play the same group. We'll have to look at who is the best option. Instead of trying to make two or three changes with positions, man-for-man will be our smartest decision and we can adjust to that with only one guy. We're leaning toward doing that.”
- New England coach Steve Nicol must make two changes to his side from Saturday's 1-1 draw against FC Dallas after Kheli Dube and Joseph Niouky picked up red cards in that match. Khano Smith and Chris Tierney represent the most likely options to come into the side, though neither player would represent a straight swap for Niouky. Nicol said yesterday he'd have to think creatively in order to fill his central midfield vacancy with Shalrie Joseph (leave of absence) and potential makeshift option Emmanuel Osei (right leg infection) ruled out.
- D.C. United faces a must-win date with Kansas City at RFK Stadium (7:00p.m., ESPN2) in the first of the four matches slated for tonight. Something will likely have to give on the attacking end for both sides: United hasn't scored at home this season, while the Wizards' three-pronged attack hasn't breached the opposition in 312 minutes. Expect at least a change or two from United in the attacking third to spur some sort of movement on that front.
- The MLS Disciplinary Committee fined United coach Curt Onalfo $1,000 and tacked on an additional one-match U.S. Open Cup ban onto the one-game penalty incurred after he was ejected in United's 4-2 win over FC Dallas in a play-in match last Wednesday. If you're wondering why MLS issued the disciplinary measures instead of U.S. Soccer, it is because MLS controls and schedules the play-in matches. U.S. Soccer takes over once MLS teams enter the tournament proper in the round of 16.
- FC Dallas visits Houston in search of its first win of the season (9:00p.m., Direct Kick). The two sides tied 1-1 at Pizza Hut Park back on March 27, but the Dynamo enters this match on the heels of a 3-0 victory over Kansas City and with the knowledge that FCD has never defeated them at Robertson Stadium in any competition (7-0-2).
- Houston forward Brian Ching could feature as he continues his recovery from a left hamstring strain, but Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear said his captain wasn't likely to see the field against FCD, according to the Houston Chronicle.
- Western Conference powers Los Angeles and Colorado will battle at Dick's Sporting Goods Park (9:30p.m., Direct Kick). This match represents a tricky test for the Galaxy because of the altitude and the Rapids' ability to dominate the game in the center of the park with Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni. Galaxy central midfielder Chris Birchall will have to continue his fine form in order to bolster his side's chances.
- The MLS Players Union ratified the proposed collective bargaining agreement yesterday with 84 percent of the players voting in favor of the new pact. With that piece of news, the topic of collective bargaining should go on the shelf for the next three-and-a-half years.
- New York defender Kevin Goldthwaite could miss the remainder of the season after aggravating a left groin injury, according to the New York Post.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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