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Monday MLS Breakdown: Chivas USA Seeks Return To Form

By Kyle McCarthy

The questions formed quickly after Chivas USA stormed to the top of the league at the start of the season.

How are they doing it? Is it all smoke and mirrors? How does this mangled group of players produce every week?

The answers to those questions didn't matter in early June. By the time Chivas USA had polished off its third one-nil win of the season against Western Conference rivals Seattle at the Home Depot Center on June 6, the Red-and-White stood atop MLS with a sterling 8-2-3 mark.

Deeper evaluation reveals Chivas USA's stingy defense (opposing teams mustered a pair of goals in just two of the 13 matches) and timely goals from Eduardo Lillingston (five goals) and Paulo Nagamura (his four goals equaled his four-year tally heading into 2009) fueled that surge, but the facts didn't matter to those who saw Chivas USA's fast start as a surprise even though Preki had guided his side to first (2007) and second place (2008) finishes since taking the helm in January 2007.

The early stretch of positive results brought higher external expectations despite the uncertainty of how Chivas USA achieved them week-after-week. That increased pressure had no impact on the team even though the results went south after the Seattle game, according to Preki.

“We always have high expectations,” Preki said the day before his team's 2-0 loss in New England on Sunday night. “I don't know what other people are thinking and I'm not really interested in that stuff. We just have a standard right here. We want to keep that standard. Lately, results haven't been as good and we haven't played as good, but we still have a group of players that understands how to play. Hopefully, we can rebound and finish strong.”

The standard certainly doesn't condone Chivas USA's current four-match losing streak in MLS play and eight-game winless streak in all competitions (0-7-1, with the draw coming after Chivas USA had lost its first two SuperLiga games) as acceptable.

Such a sharp decline in form begs the question of why things went sour so suddenly. Preki ignored the usual crutch a coach would usually employ in his situation – a crippling injury crisis that has left him patching together his team most weeks – and pointed the finger squarely at his sputtering offense.

“We're still working hard, but we're not getting the breaks,” Preki said. “Offensively, we're not dangerous, so we're trying to get a little bit going forward. That's it.”

Not dangerous also translates to impotent given the recent offensive production. Chivas has mustered just one goal during that four-match MLS losing streak, a Lillingston strike against Columbus on June 13, and has collected a mere four in that nine-match winless stretch.

Part of the problem comes from the somewhat predictable nature of the Chivas USA offense as currently comprised. Lillingston is a poacher effective only when located inside the penalty area. Maykel Galindo sits on the edge of the backline and hopes for someone to play him through behind it. Nagamura provides the only true link between midfield and attack – Chivas USA gets some width from its fullbacks but often lacks wide service from its flank midfielders – with his late runs and consistently improving distribution. If those three outlets are restricted, it becomes awfully difficult for the Goats to score goals from the run of play.

That predictability would lessen substantially if Sacha Kljestan could drag himself out of the fog that has enveloped his club campaign. Kljestan is a joker in the best sense of the word, a player who can crack open defenses with his creativity and audacity in the final third as he drifts inwards from the flank. Both of those qualities have flitted in and out this season with Kljestan seemingly disheartened by a failed move to Celtic during the close season. His form has dipped to the point where Preki has dropped him deservedly on a couple of occasions, including against the Revolution last night.

With the offense sputtering, Kljestan unable to provide the necessary spark and veteran marksman Ante Razov (ankle) still unavailable, the defense has far less margin for error. Nagamura said the inevitable mistakes – Route One goals scored by Houston and Columbus stand out as the most notable of them – are costing his side points.

“The ball is not bouncing our way,” Nagamura said. “We had a couple of mistakes in a couple of the games. We lost the games because of those mistakes. That's how the games are in this league. A couple of mistakes and you end up losing 1-0. It's always single digits. If you look at our last few games, they are all 1-0 or 2-1. We have to be aware that every single detail is important.”

In order to cut out those mistakes and restore the early season form, Chivas USA needs to draw on its strong mentality – the same mentality that presses and harries opposing team for 90 minutes – to carry them through, Nagamura said.

“In tough times, that's when you have to work hard, be committed and be strong as a group,” Nagamura said. “We are going through this stretch now, so we have to see how hard we'll work. In training, we have been pretty solid and the mentality has been pretty good.”

It isn't all bad news despite the downturn in form. Despite the four-game drought, Chivas USA would qualify for the playoffs – they are currently tied for third in Western Conference with Los Angeles on 27 points (8-6-3) – if the second season started today. Two consecutive bye weeks will give them time to banish the recent form from their minds and get healthy ahead of an August 8 trip to Colorado. A few more bodies – Bobby Burling (hernia) made his first start of the season against New England while Razov has resumed training – in key spots would go a long way to curing some of the ills that currently plague the side.

Given the seemingly interminable MLS campaign and the break that lies ahead over the next two weeks, Preki hopes that this rough patch will soon pass and the Goats can find their form as the season heads into its latter stages.

“Maybe we hit it at the right time in the middle of the season,” Preki said. “Towards the end of the season, when things really count, we can get better. We're focusing on how we can get better. Hopefully, that will happen for us sooner rather than later.”

Puzzling move adds even more depth to Chivas USA's chock-full central midfield

In a rather surprising move last week, Chivas USA sent Atiba Harris (14 games, 13 starts for the Goats on the campaign) to FC Dallas in exchange for Marcelo Saragosa. When asked about the deal, Preki said he liked Saragosa's toughness – not a quality the rugged Harris lacks in any way, shape or form – and noted he saw the Brazilian as a midfielder.

“He can press the ball, he's pretty mobile, he's pretty hard and he's got a good mentality,” Preki said.

While those qualities are typical in a Chivas USA player, those qualities also betray the fact that Saragosa is best deployed a holding midfielder, though he occasionally featured somewhat fitfully at right back for FCD. That particular fact makes the deal particularly puzzling considering Saragosa's arrival adds yet another deep-lying central player to a stable that already includes current starters Nagamura and Jesse Marsch as well as the recently acquired Kevin Harmse.

So why then did Chivas USA feel the need to acquire yet another player to fill a role that already appears suitably covered?

“We'll see what he has,” Preki said as he skipped around the question. “From what I've seen from the outside, I like his qualities. How is he going to help the team out? Well, he will help us.”

That explains that, then.

Week Eighteen – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers

Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Steven Lenhart, FW, Columbus


Despite strong bids from more illustrious contributors like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Landon Donovan, Christian Gomez and Shalrie Joseph, the sometimes overlooked Lenhart gets the nod here for his efforts in Columbus' 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake. The spectacularly coiffed supersub made a rare start – his second of the season despite 14 overall appearances – and showed that he can contribute over a longer spell. Lenhart scored the opener – his first of the season – by tucking home Jamison Olave's scuffed clearance before hassling Nick Rimando inside the goal area in order to allow Jason Garey to bundle home the Crew's second before the break. Lenhart added a bit of class to his industry in the second half with his backheel springing Garey for his second after great interplay between Lenhart, Garey and Duncan Oughton carved open the RSL defense. Not a bad night from a guy best known as a late-match bowling ball.

Who could have used some luck? Sasha Victorine, MF, Chivas USA

Victorine – starting in central midfield in place of the dropped Jesse Marsch after playing right back last week – won't want to remember New England's 2-0 victory over Chivas USA on Sunday night. After spurning two Nagamura feeds – one shot saved by Matt Reis, one header pushed wide – in the first half, Victorine couldn't clear a difficult spinner off the Gillette Stadium turf and allowed Steve Ralston to deposit a gift-wrapped turnover inside the penalty area for the Revolution's second goal.

Eleven observations to start the week

1. With Brad Davis (flu) a late scratch from the Houston lineup, Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear had to play central defender Geoff Cameron as an attack-minded central midfielder in the Dynamo's 1-1 draw at BMO Field. Cameron once again displayed his versatility by filling the role adequately. While it probably isn't a long term spot for Cameron given his lack of vision and his defensive aptitude, he can do a job there if Davis and Stuart Holden are unavailable.

2. Kinnear has had to dip deeper and deeper into his bench in recent weeks with all of absences. A few of those contributors – left back Mike Chabala for his steadiness and winger Danny Cruz for his willingness to run at players – have made cases for continued playing time off the pine when the regulars finally return.

3. As for the Reds, they did well to ride through a rather indifferent performance from Amado Guevara and some spotty moments from Nick Garcia – pace really unsettles him at this stage in his career (a point expounded upon later in this space) – to earn a much deserved point. With better finishing from Danny Dichio and Chad Barrett, it could have – and perhaps should have – been three.

4. A 3-1 loss in Columbus may have been harsh on Real Salt Lake considering its performance, but uncertain defending hastened their demise. The visitors were probably the better side for the first 23 minutes before Olave's muffed clearance handed the Crew its opener. Once Columbus notched its second eight minutes later after more defensive reticence, it was game, set and match. Olave's performances of late beg the question of whether RSL head coach Jason Kreis will push Robbie Russell back into central defense when Will Johnson returns from his Gold Cup stint with Canada this week. Then again, Olave suggests at times – his brilliant recovery tackle on Lenhart in the 38th minute would count as one of them – that Kreis should keep the faith with his maddening hulk of a central defender.

5. Crew head coach Robert Warzycha turned to old warhorse Duncan Oughton on Saturday night and the Kiwi midfielder repaid that faith with a solid 90 minutes in a right midfield role. Oughton has almost no pace at this point – he is playing on a reconstructed right knee – but tucked inside almost exclusively to leave Frankie Hejduk plenty of room to overlap. Without pace at his disposal, Oughton relied on his industry and his passing ability to get him through. It worked well enough to force Oughton back into the picture for quasi-regular playing time, at least in this pundit's eyes. Oughton was just one of a few players to step up with Guillermo Barros Schelotto (hamstring) and Alejandro Moreno (groin) added to the Crew's too-long-to-list-here absentee list.

6. “He's a handful,” said D.C. United color commentator Thomas Rongen in his description of Colorado forward Conor Casey. “He really is.” That apt piece of commentary is just about the only positive Colorado can take from its 3-1 loss at R.F.K. Stadium on Saturday night. Colorado head coach Gary Smith had zero width with Colin Clark away with the United States and Terry Cooke out of favor. Without good wide play, the Rapids become quite ordinary on the road and it showed against United.

7. United midfielder Fred flatters to deceive most of the time. His ability is obvious, but his output rarely matches it. Not on Saturday night. He impacted the game for most of his 68 minutes on the field and caused the Rapids problems with his trickery. (We'll deal with the question of whether he should have made it to 68 minutes later in this space.)

8. Normally, it's not a good sign for a team to rack up two yellow cards within the first five minutes. In San Jose's case, there's room for an exception as those cards indicated the moribund Earthquakes finally came to play. After submitting limp performances far too often this season, the Earthquakes put in a determined and energetic shift in their 2-0 loss in Chicago on Saturday night. It shouldn't take a closed-doors team meeting on Tuesday and the hasty midweek trade of a starting forward – San Jose shipped Pablo Campos to RSL after a particularly dreadful performance last weekend – to snap a team out of its stupor, but if it works, it works.

9. If Fire head coach Denis Hamlett had left Cuauhtemoc Blanco on the bench for the entire 90 minutes, the Quakes may have earned the point they deserved. Instead, Hamlett sent Blanco (and Marco Pappa) on for the final half an hour to pull the strings and ramp up the Fire attack. The switch inspired Chicago's victory with Blanco involved in both goals. Blanco's delightful chip set up Patrick Nyarko for the opener – which ended the Fire's staggering 405-minute goalless streak at Toyota Park – before he made the points safe with another succulent chip – this time over Joe Cannon – in stoppage time. Hamlett will need Blanco now more than ever with Brian McBride ruled out for the next three to four months after shoulder surgery. On this evidence, the Mexican schemer is up to the task.

10. New England defender Emmanuel Osei didn't hurt his team with his dalliances at the back in Sunday's 2-0 win over Chivas USA, but his tendency to dribble at the wrong times and play a little too casually out of the back will eventually cost the Revs at some point.

11. While Chivas USA won't take much from yet another loss, the Goats should appreciate Chukwudi Chijindu's efforts on the right wing. His running and his willingness to use his pace to unsettle defenders caused problems for the Revolution back four, though perhaps not posers as dangerous as the ones conjured up by Nagamura with his delicate passing over the top.

BONUS: The book on MLS referees almost always includes the notation that they are often reluctant to produce a red card for a second bookable offense. Although this practice has improved somewhat over the past couple of seasons, two referees slipped back into old habits when presented with clear opportunities to rightfully send players off after picking up their second yellow card this weekend.

In D.C., Fred recklessly went through Cory Gibbs with a sloppy tackle four minutes after half time and got off scot free because he had already picked up a booking for dissent in the 27th minute. Considering the timing of the rather inexplicable let off – United had just equalized through a Jaime Moreno penalty kick – and the stunted momentum Fred's dismissal would have likely caused, it's fair to say referee Ricardo Salazar changed the course of the game by allowing Fred to remain on the field while Gibbs left with an injury.

Kevin Stott extended the same unwarranted leniency in Toronto to lesser effect when Garcia saw Kei Kamara fly past him in the 89th minute and made sure he didn't progress into the open space by committing a tactical foul.

On the merits, both fouls were obvious bookings if the players committing them weren't already on a yellow. So why then did those players get such an unwarranted reprieve?

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 MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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