The intricacies of soccer formations can be incredibly nuanced -- or overanalyzed to sometimes ridiculous proportions. As Robin Fraser says of how his Chivas USA side lines up: “Depends on how you want to write it up. It's a 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 -- take your pick.”
To get technical, the current plan is a 4-1-4-1: with a holding midfielder in front of the back four and a forward in front of four attacking midfielders. It's a subtle shift from the two-holding midfielder alignment with which Chivas kicked off this season, one designed to promote better attacking soccer from a side that's struggled offensively through the first seven games.
There's one reason for the alteration: Oswaldo Minda.
The Ecuadoran veteran has quickly established himself as a force in central midfield, a physical presence whose ability to shut down foes, win balls and start transitions had made the Goats one of Major League Soccer's most effective sides everywhere except in front of the goal.
“He's a true competitor,” says Fraser, whose Goats (3-4-0, 9 points) take on the Colorado Rapids (3-4-0, 9 points) on Saturday night in Commerce City, Colo. “Winning is the only thing that matters to him, and he's the kind of guy that will do anything to win a game. He's brought a powerful defensive presence for us in the midfield, breaks up a lot of plays, [has a] tireless work rate. And that in turn has allowed our attacking players to be even more attacking.”
Minda, 28, acquired a few days before Christmas from Ecuadoran champion Deportivo Quito, has size -- he's a rugged 6-foot, 175 pounds -- ample athleticism, speed, deceptively fine ball skills, good vision, plus experience in South America's biggest competitions, both at the club level and with Ecuador's national team. Add it all up, and it's enabled him to physically dominate games.
The switch from a 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders in the central-midfield triangle, is possible because Minda can handle the holding role by himself.
“There's still defensive responsibilities [for the attacking central midfielders],” Fraser said, “but I think knowing that you have this defensive presence, and the defenders behind you are doing a very good job, it's freed up our attacking players to be a little bit more attacking. ... He's done a really good job. Look at the games we've won on the road, his presence was very big. He's an unselfish kind of guy, and that's probably the most important characteristic for that position, is that you're unselfish. Because you do a lot of work for a lot of other players, and you don't get a lot of glory.”
Some glory is starting to come Minda's way. Some observers, vocal on Twitter and in the blogosphere, believe he's already the best holding midfielder in MLS. He certainly could be the most dominant.
“I've worked so hard to compete and to win. That's what I have in mind,” said Minda, who was a driving force in Deportivo Quito's success the past four years: three Ecuadoran titles (the last captured days before he joined Chivas), plus three appearances in the Copa Libertadores, South America's club championship, and three more in the secondary Copa Sudamericana. “For me, there are no excuses, no justification when you lose. A soccer player has to always think of winning. Thank God, that's the way I was raised, and that's the way I believe I'm going to die.”
He's been pivotal defensively -- Chivas has conceded just five goals in seven games -- and come through at the other end, too, heading home countryman Miller Bolaños' corner kick to beat Toronto FC two weeks ago. But Minda's greatest qualities aren't so easily quantified, and Fraser and his staff knew as soon as they started scouting him that he offered what they needed for stage two of the on-field rebuild.
“I think he's a winner,” assistant coach Greg Vanney said. “Deportivo Quito hadn't won anything in  years, and he and his group of players turned that into a three-year title thing. He's clearly a winner, he's clearly done that in his world. And he's a winner in terms of his presence in the middle of the field, his willingness to win balls and win tackles.
“He just keeps the game flowing for us. ... Especially when the game gets open, he can close things down. Just his understanding of what the game needs at what time in the game is important. At times when he sees the team lulling a little bit, he may lift his level and chase a ferw more things and be a little more aggressive in trying to lift the team in his way. It's just those things that are sometimes intangible that lift a team from being just an average team to being a very good team.”
Minda's physical play attracts attention from referees, too. He has four yellow cards, and one more means a one-game suspension. Chivas can live with that.
“He'll pick up another one and be suspended, and that's just the way it's going to be,” goalkeeper Dan Kennedy said. “That position always warrants a lot of tackles, so he's going to be involved in a lot of yellow-card challenges. Unfortunately, we'll probably miss him for a couple games on suspension [during the season], but that's not a bad thing. We need him to be aggressive.”
To play his game? “Exactly.”
WORTH NOTING: Winger Michael Lahoud, out since two days before the opener with a hamstring strain, has come off the injury list, traveled to Denver and is expected to be on the 18-man game roster. ... Conor Casey's return from last season's Achilles' tendon tear is the big news for the Rapids. The big striker is expected to play about 10 minutes in his first game since mid-July. ... Colorado leads the all-time series, 9-5-5, after winning last season in Carson (1-0) and sharing points in Commerce City (2-2, with Juan Pablo Angel and Laurent Courtois scoring equalizing goals). The Goats are 1-2-2 at DSG Park, and last year's draw followed back-to-back 4-0 and 3-0 losses at Colorado. ... The Rapids won a Feb. 7 preseason meeting, 1-0, on Quincy Amarikwa's goal. ... Jorge Villafaña did not travel, and he will make an appearance at Saturday's “Sueño MLS 2012” tryouts at the Bell Gardens Sports Complex. Villafaña, who won the first “Sueño” in 2007, will be on site from about noon to 2 p.m. and will speak to hopefuls at about 1. ... Former trialist John Owoeri, a Nigerian forward/midfielder who scored a hat trick in Chivas' victory over UC Riverside about six weeks ago, is on trial with Toronto FC. He recently trialed with Montreal, too.
Head coach: Oscar Pareja.
Key players: M Jaime Castrillon, F Conor Casey, F Omar Cummings, M Pablo Mastroeni, M Jeff Larentowicz, M Brian Mullan, D Drew Moor.
Local guys: D Marvell Wynne (UCLA).
Update: The Rapids have just one goal in a three-game losing streak, Cummings' sizzler in last week's 2-1 defeat to the Galaxy, their only home defeat in three games. Their record (3-4-0) is deceiving: it includes road losses to Real Salt Lake and Seattle, but they've beaten every foe they should have. New coach Pareja has brought a Latin feel to the team, adding Colombians Castrillon and defender Luis Zapata, Argentine midfielder Martin Rivero and just this week Brazilian forward Edu, who played for Celta Vigo and Real Betis in Spain. Mastroeni's concussion has boosted Larentowicz's importance, and Cummings' speed is a weapon up top, although Casey's return from an Achilles tear will add attacking dimensions.
Out: M Marvin Iraheta (right ACL tear), F Alejandro Moreno (concussion).
Probable: M Peter Vagenas (fractured rib), M Ben Zemanski (right MCL sprain).
Out: M Pablo Mastroeni (concussion), D Anthony Wallace (left Achilles tear), M Ross LaBauex (sports hernia).
Questionable: M Jamie Smith (right ACL tear).
Probable: F Conor Casey (left Achilles tear), M Martin Rivero (right quadriceps soreness).
Dick's Sporting Goods Park (Commerce City, Colo.), 6 p.m. PT
Referee: Kevin Stott
TV: Fox Sports West (English), KWHY/Channel 22 (Spanish) and Prime Ticket (English, 2 a.m.)
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690, Spanish)