Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIPhotos.com
By JOHN BOSCHINI
A rebuilt Chivas USA isn't happy with being second best.
Less than four months after seeing their cross-town rivals lift the MLS Cup in their home stadium, second-year head coach Robin Fraser is determined to improve on a 2011 marred with inconsistency and a late-season slump.
"We definitely want to see some improvement," Fraser said. "Our goal is to be competitive and consistent. We have a lot of new guys but we have a nice mix of veterans and youth so I think we're in a good position."
A couple of shrewd off-season signings combined with a full off-season for big-name signing Juan Pablo Angel gives the Goats a dangerous starting 11. The addition of Ecuadorian duo Oswaldo Minda and Miller Bolanos along with the first-round pick of Maryland striker Casey Townsend echo Fraser's commitment to solid players with mental toughness.
Here is a closer look at Chivas USA ahead of the 2012 MLS Season.
CHIVAS USA SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 8-12-14, 36 points (eighth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Miller Bolanos, M Oswaldo Minda, F Casey Townsend, D John Valencia,D James Riley, D Rauwshan McKenzie, GK Brian Rowe.
KEY DEPARTURES: D Zarek Valentin, F Justin Braun, M Gerson Mayen, M Paulo Nagamura, G Zach Thornton, D Simon Elliott.
Holding on to a lead was Chivas' Achilles Heal last season with the Rojiblancos surrendering 14 points from winning positions in 2011. For Fraser, the inability to close out games boils down to a lack of mental toughness and an inability to focus for a full 90 minutes. Correcting that has been a major facet in Chivas' preseason preparations.
"It's really about not letting anything slide," Fraser said. "You make demands of the team and the players then have to establish what they stand for."
Angel, 36, will once again be the catalyst for an offense that scored only 41 goals last season and was shut out 12 times. Angel made an immediate impact after arriving in the summer, scoring seven goals in just nine games. However, the Colombian isn't getting any younger and it's unlikely he will be able to produce week in and week out.
This is also assuming the club and player can reach an agreement before the March 11 deadline. Both sides are confident a deal can be reached but the club admitted he might not be available for the season opener.
Last season's leading scorer, Justin Braun, is off to Montreal and it will be up to Alejandro Moreno and untested rookie Townsend to knock in the goals. Using the fifth pick in the MLS Draft to select Townsend was indicative of Fraser's desire to bring in consistency.
"I'm a hard worker and am going to fight for every ball," Townsend said. "I know everyone talks about this but the speed of play is just at a different level in the pros so that's the biggest thing to adjust to. That being said I'm a goal-scorer and that's why I'm on the team."
"He has a great nose for goal and is an absolute battler," Fraser said of Townsend. " We were impressed by his work ethic and competitive nature. He's the kind of guy you want in a street fight."
Scoring goals will be especially important in the Spring while a retooled midfield and new back four try to establish a rapport. A healthy Heath Pearce combining with newcomers John Valencia and James Riley gives Chivas a competent back line. The defensive bench, however, is full of question marks and unproven talent.
Fraser understands that with a longer season and extreme heat in the dog days of summer, a lack of depth could lead to a slump similar to the one Chivas experienced in August and September of last year.
"It's very important to have a strong bench," Fraser said. "Once we get into the summer, the weather gets hot and national team call-ups will affect us. Building depth is something we've really focused on but in this league it's a very difficult thing to do."
"It's something I'm going to have to get used to," Townsend said of the change from a four-month college season to an eight-month MLS campaign. "The rosters are bigger and everything in this league but come June and July, that's normally when the college season is over and we'll just be reaching the midway point."
Depth isn't as much of a problem in midfield. The addition of Minda and Bolanos should be enough to compete with most teams in MLS. Blair Gavin will be fighting hard to get a place after two promising but injury-riddled seasons in the MLS.
Fraser refuses to concede that anything less than a championship should be the ultimate goal but knows establishing chemistry between the multitude of newcomers is paramount in the short term.
"If you're competitive in sports you always want to be on top," Fraser said. "Any team wants to win a championship. Right now we're looking at different systems and narrowing our focus while trying to build chemistry."
While the Rojiblancos are long shots to reclaim the MLS Cup from the Galaxy, another good year out of Angel combined with some luck on the injury front makes a playoff push a realistic goal.