September 4, 2007

MLS Surprise of the Year or "Why Chivas USA will win the West"

It was an offseason filled with doubt for the "other team" from Los Angeles. Bob Bradley had left for the USMNT, replaced by Preki, who had no previous head coaching experience. Their two big signings from Mexico, Francisco "Paco" Palencia and Juan Pablo "Loquito" Garcia, two of the main reasons behind their push to the Western Conference semifinals, had both returned to Mexico.

In response, the team brought in Maykel Galindo, a Cuban refugee from the Seattle Sounders of the USL First Division. Galindo had been a good player, but hadn't torn up the league when compared to other forwards in the league.

Things didn't start out too well for the team. Two wins, two draws and three losses in the first seven games had some fans calling for Preki's head, and the optimism from last season had seemed to walk out the door with Bradley, Palencia and Garcia. While the team was certainly better than they were in their expansion season, it seemed that any hopes of returning to the spot where they were just one goal from the Western Conference finals would have to wait for another season.

Then a funny thing happened. Galindo starting scoring goals, taking the pressure off Ante Razov. And Chivas USA became unbeatable at home. A May draw against the Galaxy remains their only blemish on a perfect home record. 22 points out of a possible 24 so far this season. But a 4-0 thrashing at Houston in late June brought up doubts about the team playing on the road and left fans wondering why the team played so well at home and so poorly on the road. Throw in the absences of Jonathan Bornstein, Sacha Kljestan and Brad Guzan to international duty and it didn't look good.

But slowly Chivas USA started to hang around, picking up road draws and even a couple of wins at Chicago and at New York. And when all momentum seemed to be lost with a three-week break between July 29 and August 18, think again.

The team has returned with three wins, two of them on the road (albeit, one against the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center). But the most important fact is how Chivas USA won these three games. Their defense has been immense, not allowing a goal since July 29, while Galindo has scored three goals in this time.

The 3-0 win against the Galaxy on August 23rd is a microcosm of where Chivas USA is right now. With a national TV audience tuning in to see David Beckham, the Goats dismanted the Galaxy, exposing their porous defense and rightly taking advantage. You had Jesse Marsch showing his veteran experience and not being afraid of the wrath of soccer moms all across the country by going after Beckham late in the first half. THIS was the statement game we were all waiting for, and Chivas USA responded. They showed that no matter how much money the Galaxy spends to bring in Beckham, Pavon, Xavier and all their big names, it's not their year. This is the Year of the Goat.

So why will Chivas USA win the West, you might ask. Well, look at the standings, for one thing. You can already rule out the Crapids, the Gals and RSL. So that leaves it a three-team race for the #1 seed. Here are the current standings:

1. Houston Dynamo - 39 points, 24 games played. (1.625 points per game)
2. Chivas USA - 36 points, 20 games played. (1.8 points per game)
3. FC Dallas - 36 points, 22 games played. (1.636 points per game)

The Goats are tied with FC Dallas with two games in hand. And they trail Houston by 3 points with 4 games in hand. Pretty easy to see who has the upper hand here.

Look at the three teams' recent run of play (in August and the first weekend of September):

Houston Dynamo - 5 games, 1 win, 2 draws, 2 losses, 3-4 goal differential
Chivas USA - 3 games, 3 wins, 6-0 goal differential
FC Dallas - 4 games, 2 wins, 2 losses, 4-7 goal differential

Now let's look at Chivas USA's remaining schedule:

10 games, 7 home, 3 away

09/06 - D.C. United
09/09 - New York Red Bulls
09/13 - Los Angeles Galaxy
09/16 - @ Colorado Rapids
09/22 - Kansas City Wizards
09/29 - Chicago Fire
10/06 - @ Real Salt Lake
10/11 - @ FC Dallas
10/14 - Colorado Rapids
10/20 - Houston Dynamo

It'll be a busy schedule, but nothing too difficult. All of their tough games come at the HDC, where they have been spectacular. Thursday's game against D.C. should be one that every soccer fan in the country should tune into. Many people are saying it's a possible MLS Cup preview, but I'll one-up that: Possible battle for the upper hand in the race for the Supporters Shield?

With all the doubts overcome by this team, it's not out of the realm of possibilities. To me, the one thing that's helped this team more than anything is the dispersal throughout the team of veteran leadership. Up front you've got Razov, one of the leading scorers in league history, helping Galindo tremendously with his passing and guidance into becoming one of the newest stars of the league. In the midfield, you've got Marsch, a winner of 3 MLS Cups, providing stability for newcomers Kljestan and Bornstein. And in the back there's Claudio Suarez, in his last year with the team, an all-around class act and as he showed in Germany 2006, still on top of his game. And with one of the best young goalkeepers in the league in Guzan, the Starting XI for Chivas USA rivals that of the best teams in the league.

The possibilities are endless for this team, and it's time for Chivas USA fans to start dreaming.

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