Chivas USA's most complete performance of the season Saturday night led to a 3-1 victory over Eastern Conference leader Columbus and signaled the Goats, no matter their position in the standings, as a team to watch through the final three months of the MLS season.
Outstanding defense, especially on Crew playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, great hustle all over the field, and three superb goals -- all by players 23 or younger -- led to what head coach Martin Vasquez called “our biggest win all year.”
It was a nearly perfect performance, marred only by lax defending on former Azusa Pacific University/Esperanza High School star Steven Lenhart, who ended the shutout bid in the 88th minute.
“Tonight was one to remember,” said Brazilian midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who teamed with rookie Ben Zemanski to corral Schelotto. “We've got to build on this and keep up the good work, because we're still last place in our conference, and we have to get results.”
SHUTTING DOWN SCHELOTTO: Nagamura or Zemanski was on top of the Argentine creator from start to finish, never allowing him the time to find teammates and forge an attack.
“We tried to minimize his touches and don't let him create too much for his team,” Nagamura said. Zemanski said “the key is to always be aware of where he is. Even when we're attacking, he likes to find gaps to get the ball in transition, so me or Paulo, whoever wasn't in attack, had to be aware of him.”
Nagamura and Zemanski teamed together in the 1-1 draw last week at Real Salt Lake, which like Columbus has 10 wins, to minimize playmaker Javier Morales' effectiveness. They were even better against Schelotto.
“We've been playing some teams that have some special players,” Vasquez said, “and for us to have a chance to win a game, to get a result, we need to close them down. We need to shut them down.”
SMART GOALS: All three Chivas goals were terrific. The first, in the 37th minute, was a classic cross-and-header, with Justin Braun streaking in to space next to the penalty spot to sharply nod Rodolfo Espinoza's cross inside the right post. (The goal was Braun's seventh in MLS and ninth in all competitions.)
Blair Gavin's determination caused the second. A long punt from Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy (El Dorado HS) bounced over his former UC Santa Barbara teammate Andy Iro. Gavin raced past and pressured fellow rookie Shaun Francis into a mistake. The ball glanced off Francis' chest, and Gavin poked it over goalkeeper Will Hesmer and into the net.
The finale, eight minutes into the second half, came from a beautiful sequence. Columbus cleared a corner kick toward Schelotto on the left flank, and Zemanski outhustled the Crew star to the ball and crossed it toward the top of the box. Giancarlo Maldonado chested it down to Carlos Borja, and the Loara High School alum finished clinically for his first MLS goal.
STREAKING FORWARD: Chivas (5-9-3) has lost just once in its past nine games, to Puebla in the SuperLiga, and has climbed within two points of Houston at the bottom of the Western standings -- and within five points of a postseason berth.
It has posted positive results against Real Salt Lake and Columbus -- two of the three best teams in MLS -- in its past two games, and could next week become the first team to beat Toronto FC, guided by former Chivas coach Preki, at BMO Field in more than a year.