CHIVAS USA 2012: Playoffs not only goal
CARSON -- Robin Fraser has bolstered his roster with 12 acquisitions since his first campaign in charge of Chivas USA closed 4½ months ago, adding experience, depth and more than a little talent to a decent base.
Will it translate to success -- and if not now, then when?
That's the biggest question facing the Goats in year two of Fraser's reign, and where they sit come the end of October -- in or out of Major League Soccer's postseason -- will determine whether it has worked.
The playoffs are the goal for Chivas, and anything less will be considered abject failure. Fraser wants more.
“You should try to win it,” he said. “The goal is to win a championship. … I've said so many times: There's no sense in being in a competition if you're not trying to win it. Obviously, at the end of the road, we're all in this trying to win an MLS Cup.”
It's a heady aim for a franchise that has won only one of eight playoff games in its history and never advanced beyond the initial stage, not even when it won the West in 2007. The Goats have missed the postseason the past two years and are still rebuilding since so many important figures departed after 2009.
Fraser took aggressive steps during this offseason and preseason, bolstering a tattered backline with the acquisitions of veteran right back James Riley and Colombian center back John Alexander Valencia, strengthening a deep midfield with, especially, Ecuadoran national-teamers Miller Bolaños and Oswaldo Minda, and improving attacking options up front, with first-round draft pick Casey Townsend, especially, demonstrating the gravitas needed to become a seasoned pro.
The most influential of players from last year -- goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, defenders Heath Pearce and Ante Jazic, midfielders Nick LaBrocca and Alejandro Moreno, star forward Juan Pablo Angel -- have returned, and Fraser and his staff have been able to build on something; camp opened last year less than two weeks after he and top assistant coach Greg Vanney were hired.
On paper, Chivas has a far better side than the one that went 8-14-12 and finished eighth among nine in the Western Conference last year, but it might take a little time before that becomes apparent.
“We've got a lot more experience than last year, for sure,” said Pearce, whose move from outside back to the middle was one of the big success stories in the Goats' 2011 season. “Hopefully, we can implement that experience. Obviously, we've got a lot of new guys coming for different leagues, so hopefully we can get them in and get them situated and comfortable in our league as quick as possible. Our league is different, and you find that no matter where you come from, it takes guys time to adjust to this league.”
The physical nature of MLS can be challenging to Latin players -- four newcomers and five of eight trialists wrangling for addition jobs have arrived from Latin America -- and the travel distances and summer heat and humidity can be devastating.
Building chemistry can take time, but expectations -- except within the club and among its fan base -- aren't massive. A lot of prognosticators are picking Chivas to finish last in a Western Conference filled with good to great MLS clubs. All nine clubs are capable of getting to the playoffs.
Chivas nearly got there last year, despite battling injury problems and deadly defensive miscues all season. They won back-to-back just once, endured three- and four-game losing streaks and won just once in their final 11 matches as their playoff hopes slipped away.
All but two losses were by just one goal and late collapses cost the Goats 14 points. Collect just over half, and they'd have played on. That's a lesson everyone wants to learn from.
“As of right now, we all have the same amount of points,” said Kennedy, the team MVP last year. “What we need to focus on is one game at a time. If we can do that and put our best performance on the field every weekend, by the end of the season, the playoffs will take care of themselves.”
That's Fraser's mantra.
“We're absolutely ready for this weekend,” he said. “I'll just say it that way, because I do believe we have to approach it one game at a time in this league, because any team can beat any team on any given day, so your focus needs to be very short-term in this league.”
If that leads to the postseason, great. If not, not so much. The margin between success and failure is razor thin.
“Look, if we want to make the playoffs, we have to be able to beat everyone, right?” general manager Jose Domene said. “It doesn't matter who we face, we have to be ready. … We're sure we can make it. It's going to be very hard. It's going to be very hard for everyone. We're a hard team to play against, too. … We've just got to make the playoffs. Period.”
“Once you make the playoffs, anything can happen.”