Chivas USA's decision last week to test some tactical alternatives -- and then discard them before trying them out in a game -- could prove to be a masterstroke by rookie head coach Robin Fraser.
His Goats, he says, are "starting to form an identity," and by demonstrating that he was willing, at the very least, to consider trading in that identity -- as a possession team that, when things are going right, can run foes off the park -- for something less attractive, possibly less satisfying but maybe more effective might have been enough to shake them from a growing stupor.
Chivas (5-7-6) offered two impressive and dynamic but far from complete performances last week while ending two skids -- first of three losses and then of four games without a win -- and head into Saturday's Major League Soccer match at Sporting Kansas City (5-6-6) feeling pretty good about themselves.
But not too good.
"I think at times when we weren't playing great on the field, we recognized that," defender Heath Pearce said after Wednesday night's 2-0 triumph over San Jose at Home Depot Center. "We didn't try to force our way out of it. We played smart, we played safe. ... We were able to build into our kind of flow. When we kind of get off pace, we start trying too hard to keep that style of play. We were able to recognize that early [in the victory] and kind of go through the ebbs and flows of the game."
Learning how to manage the game is a big part of the process Chivas is undergoing as it grows into the side Fraser envisions. On occasion, the Goats get it right, and when they do, it's Nick LaBrocca -- acquired from Toronto FC during preseason -- at the reins. He's playing atop the midfield diamond, and his class on the ball and ability to finish, seen with goals in last weekend's 1-1 draw against Chicago and to secure the win over San Jose, have provided a needed dimension, especially with Blair Gavin and Paulo Nagamura missing so much time through injury.
The elements of Chivas' game are simple but difficult. They prefer to move the ball, to play keep away as they bear down on the opponent's box, and it all stems from their defensive play, which was solid last week after mistakes doomed earlier efforts.
"We're at our best when instead of putting out the fire, we avoid fires altogether," Pearce said. "I think at times we compound our mistakes along the way, where we don't kill the game when we're supposed to, and the next play the next player arrives late, and now they're through and they have a chance to score.
"I think we did a good job of killing everything at the root of the problem [against the Earthquakes], which gave us more space going to other way, and we won balls in good positions, and once we started stringing passes together, I think the team did well to create two goals. And that's all you need."
WORTH NOTING: Kansas City captured the first meeting this season, in a March 19 opener, with Omar Bravo scoring twice in a 3-2 triumph. ... Chivas has won just once in seven games at K.C. -- last July 10, with Justin Braun getting both goals in a 2-0 victory. The Goats picked up a point, in a 1-1 draw, on their 2009 trip. ... Sporting surrendered multiple goals in five of its first seven games, but no more than one in the 10 games since. ... Twelve of 23 goals Sporting has conceded have come in the final 15 minutes of halves, half of them from the 75th minute on. ... K.C.'s top five scorers (C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi, Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara) all have three goals and either two or three assists. ... Former University of Michigan forward Soony Saad, who went to Sporting in a weighted lottery Tuesday, is eligible to make his MLS debut.
MISSING: Alejandro Moreno is with Venezuela at Copa America, South America's nations championship, with Venezuela's national team. ... Jimmy Conrad (concussion) is officially doubtful, but he will not play. ... Defender Ante Jazic (calf strain) and midfielder Paulo Nagamura (quad strain) have been downgraded from questionable to out.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Peter Vermes was a forward for the U.S. at the 1990 World Cup, and he nearly made the 1998 team as a defender. He played in Hungary, Holland, Spain and with four MLS clubs, finishing his career in 2002 with the Kansas City Wizards.
Three key players
Longtime Guadalajara star Bravo's craftiness and ability in and around the box, which fueled his two-goal performance at the 2006 World Cup with Mexico, is key to the Wizards' attack.
Bunbury, another product of the University of Akron's soccer factory, is a rising U.S. national team star after choosing the country he grew up in over his native Canada. His dad, former Canadian national-teamer Alex Bunbury, finished his career 11 years ago in K.C.
Sierra Leone-born winger Kamara, a refugee who played college ball at Cal State Dominguez Hills, combines tremendous strength, speed, athleticism and skill to add an at-times devastating dimension to Sporting's attack
Sporting has been sensational since its stadium opened a month ago, extending its MLS unbeaten streak to nine games (and vaulting from ninth, or last, to fourth in the Eastern Conference) with four wins in its last six -- while advancing to a favorable matchup in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. There's tremendous speed and athleticism on the flanks and up front, and the emergence of reigning MLS Player of the Month Zusi and rookie forward Sapong -- and Thousand Oaks' Chance Myers finding fine form -- has helped to make K.C. one of the league's most dangerous sides.
Kamara played at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, Myers at Thousand Oaks High School and UCLA. ... Midfielder Luke Sassano's rights belonged to the Galaxy for a few hours in December, when he was taken in the re-entry draft and promptly traded for Frankie Hejduk's rights.
Captain Davy Arnaud, a central midfielder, is out after sports-hernia surgery, and so are midfielder Craig Rocastle (sprained knee) and defender Seth Sinovic (hamstring strain). ... Rookie forward Konrad Warzycha -- son of Columbus Crew head coach Robert Warzycha -- is out for the year with a preseason knee injury.
At Livestrong Sporting Park (Kansas City, Kan.), 4:30 p.m.
Radio: W Radio (XEWW-AM/690, Spanish)
Referee: Jasen Anno