Difficult decisions loom for Chivas USA brass after a rough campaign, but this one was easy: Martin Vasquez will be back as head coach.
The Mexico-born, Alhambra-raised former midfielder, who aside from a nine-month stint as Juergen Klinsmann’s assistant coach at Bayern Munich has been with the club since its 2005 debut, will be in charge for the next step of the Goats’ transition, says vice president of soccer operations Stephen Hamilton.
“He’s the guy,” Hamilton said Saturday night after Chivas’ 8-17-4 season wrapped with a 4-1 loss to the visiting Chicago Fire. “We hired him for a reason. We believe in him. This has obviously been a tough year for everyone -- it’s a transition. …
“The things we saw in him previously, we still see in him, and I think he’s going to benefit from a year of experience as a head coach. This is his first go as a head coach, so I think he’s learned a lot. And talking to him in private, the conversations we’ve had, I feel good about him, the things he wants to do going forward.”
The Goats have a steep climb after finishing last in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference and 15th of 16 teams overall, ahead of only D.C. United (6-20-4).
The struggles weren’t unexpected. Retirement and departures cost the club its on-field leadership and wiliest veterans, and the absence of Jesse Marsch and (until his return in July following six months in Mexico) Paulo Nagamura -- the central-midfield partnership around which everything revolved -- left Chivas without a viable on-field foundation.
Sacha Kljestan’s move in June to Belgian champion RSC Anderlecht took away the most creative player, and departing (for Mexico) defender Jonathan Bornstein’s participation at the World Cup deprived the Goats of their inspirational leader. Throw in a new coaching staff, and if Chivas wasn’t starting from scratch, it was close.
“Even to name the most successful teams in [the history of the] league, D.C. and L.A.: They have been hit [with a need to rebuild] at one time,” Vasquez said Saturday. “D.C. has been hit this year. L.A. [for] three years [2006-08] didn’t make the playoffs. … [Now] we’re on transition, and we have to look at all possibilities to strengthen this group and turn this around.”
WHAT WORKED: The Goats got to the U.S. pen Cup semifinals. Blair Gavin, a first-round draft out of NCAA powerhouse Akron, proved an immense and versatile talent until a hamstring injury at the start of August ended his season. Fellow rookie Ben Zemanski, also from Akron, added skill and vision in midfield, and midseason addition Rodolfo Espinoza, a Mexican wing-playmaker, added dimensions to Chivas’ attack. The return of Nagamura brought leadership and midfield creativity/bite. Forward Justin Braun had a breakout season and led the Goats with nine goals, although his productivity faded the final six weeks of the campaign. These five and midfield addition Sal Zizzo provide a decent nucleus to build around.
WHAT DIDN’T: There was no depth to speak of, except in midfield, and the team managed just two fully satisfying league victories: a 4-0 romp at New England on May 5 and a 3-1 triumph at home July 31 over Columbus. Maykel Galindo’s fitness/injury issues led to a loan deal to second-tier FC Tampa Bay, and a second scoring option (after Braun) never materialized. Venezuelan forward Giancarlo Maldonado provided little after his ballyhooed acquisition. Salvadoran midfielder Osael Ramirez offered virtually nothing. Backline play was too often horrific, especially in the final two games, three-goal losses at San Jose and against Chicago. Chivas never put together back-to-back league wins.
WHAT’S NEXT: Vasquez, Hunter and the rest of the technical staff will assess the strengths and weaknesses of each player, determining which to protect for the Nov. 24 expansion draft. Forward Chukwudi Chijindu and midfielder Gerson Mayen, who were loaned to second-tier Miami FC, will likely return unless they are taken in the expansion draft. Galindo’s status is uncertain. Eduardo Lillingston, having a fine campaign for Mexican Liga de Ascensco side Indios de Ciudad Juarez, could be called back into the fold.
The Goats must strengthen, especially, its backline and its depth up front. A true midfield playmaker might be valuable, and a decision must be made on whether to keep 37-year-old goalkeeper Zach Thornton, who won MLS’s netminder award last year.
“As you can see, we need help or to strengthen every line on our team, from our defense to our midfield to up top,” Vasquez said. “The numbers, the stats, the results we got this year, it’s obvious we need to strengthen our group in every line.
“We’ll be looking to bring players that are better than what we have so we can turn this around.”
ADDITIONS: There’s a world of talent out there. Finding someone who fits into the club’s philosophy and budget, and who’s available and interested, is the next step.
“I think we have a good core group of guys, and I think we’ll build off of that,” Hamilton said, “but we definitely need to strengthen certain areas, and we’re going to sit back and evaluate exactly where we are. We’ve got a lot of ideas already -- we’ve been doing the scouting proactively, for players inside and outside of the league, and we feel confident we’ll be able to strengthen the side for next season.”
DESIGNATED PLAYER: That could include a Designated Player -- the classification for players who are paid well beyond what the salary cap would allow; every team has two slots with the ability to acquire a third.
“If we can find the right player, who makes sense both on and off the field for as a franchise, as an organization,” Hamilton said, “that can help us in terms of winning games -- obviously, the most important [thing] from a competitive side -- but also from a business standpoint. We want it to be relevant to our market, to the fans of Los Angeles, to our fans. We want, hopefully, to be able to grow our fanbase with that type of player.”
Translation: An identifiable star, preferably Latin American -- a Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez or Diego Forlan, not that Chivas can afford (or would entice) anyone of that stripe -- or a Mexican national-teamer. They’re not going to get the most appetizing of El Tri’s stars: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos or Carlos Vela. Jared Borgetti, now 37, might have been a wise choice a few years ago.
The best option -- and no telling how realistic this is -- might be Guadalajara’s Adolfo “Bofo” Bautista, a colorful figure whose combination of skill and grit might be suitable for MLS. The 31-year-old forward was a backup for Mexico at the World Cup, and his credentials with Guadalajara (he’s on his second stint with Chivas) could be a winner in this market.