Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-mortem: the first of many

Chivas USA's 2008 season ended the same way the 2007 and 2006 seasons did, with the club succumbing in the first round in a series they could have and possibly should have won. This time, it was upstarts Real Salt Lake who knocked Chivas out of the postseason.

So, what happened?

It's hard to point to exactly one thing, although you could point to several things that may have helped: ankles, thighs, backs, groins, etc. Injuries were a ridiculous problem for Chivas this season and while the players never used that as an excuse, it really did keep the club from piecing together a consistent lineup. I think the club had something like 26 different starting lineups this year. How any team would be able to piece together any semblance of consistency with those odds is beyond me.

Still, aside from injuries - which although seemingly an obstacle it's one that every team has to deal with - there were some moves the club did that held them back in the end.

* In January, Chivas nearly lost Brad Guzan. With the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year in the final year of his contract, it was clear that he was leaving in the middle of the season. There was no doubt about that to anyone who had any idea of finances and how MLS works. With that knowledge, Chivas should have brought in a goalkeeper they knew they'd be able to groom for regular play in SuperLiga and the second half of the MLS schedule. Dan Kennedy seemed to fit that role and when Guzan left Kennedy was given the reins in a pair of SuperLiga games. But when the league schedule picked up, Chivas inexplicably traded for Zach Thornton, who hadn't played at all for New York. Thornton was a disaster for most of his stay with Chivas. Still, Thornton went down and Kennedy stepped in and played admirable. But after an atrocious red card in the season's last game, Kennedy lost his starting spot and Thornton played in both playoff games. Thornton could do little on Saturday's first goal but nobody but him was to blame for the second goal, one Preki called the "softest goal ever."

* Injuries sapped Chivas of forwards Maykel Galindo, Ante Razov and Alecko Eskandarian for long stretches of the season. In the middle of the season, Chivas picked up Roberto Nurse and a valuable member of the team seemed to have joined the fray. Instead, Nurse barely played as Justin Braun continued to get the call. Braun had a solid year for a rookie but Nurse was seasoned in the Mexican league. While most of Nurse's success came in the second division, it was still at a higher level than Braun had been accustomed to. Nurse sat while Braun played, and while the youngster showed heart and played well, Nurse may have provided more punch than Braun did.

* Preki did so well in getting Chivas to finish second in the west. With all the injuries, other managers would not have been able to handle this as well. After all, the other HDC team had a similar slew of injuries in 2007 and failed to reach the playoffs. But sometimes Preki's lineups make you wonder. It's almost as if he takes some dice and throws them against the wall and goes with whatever comes up. Jonathan Bornstein should never play central defense. Yet he started there in Game 1. Now, Bornstein had moved to right back when the goal was scored - although right back is another non-natural position for him - but Bornstein was mostly at fault for RSL's goal. Had Carey Talley stayed in at right back or Bobby Burling/Jim Curtin been in central defense since the start, perhaps that slow-moving ball gets cleared. The differences in the starting lineups Chivas used had lots to with injuries of course but also had plenty to do with Preki's choices. And in the end, some of them backfired in the playoffs.

* Sacha Kljestan is a stud - at least, that's what we've heard. But Kljestan has two major deficiencies in his game - his vision and passing ability are not at the levels you expect from an elite player (which means he's not an elite player) and his finishing ability leaves plenty to be desired. Kljestan had an open look about a quarter hour into the first leg from 20 yards and sent a weak shot wide of the goal. He had an opportunity late in the game on Saturday from about the same distance but sent it high. Chivas relied heavily on Kljestan but his shortcomings also hurt the team. Before Kljestan gets to the next level, he needs to vastly improve on both his vision/passing and finishing.

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