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Thursday, January 20, 2011
CHIVAS USA: Preseason primer

By Scott French

Jimmy Conrad
Jimmy Conrad, who spent last season in Kansas City, could be a valuable veteran presence for Chivas USA in 2011.

Chivas USA opened camp Thursday with physicals and initial meetings, and the Goats begin on-field preparations Friday morning at the Home Depot Center with a new coach and, in many ways, a new club.

Robin Fraser takes charge as the club takes stock, and he brings with him a coaching philosophy that could provide a foundation for Chivas to return to, and surpass, the glories of 2006-09.

The club was perhaps Major League Soccer's most stylish at the time, and a title run in 2007 -- with Maykel Galindo's breakthrough and Ante Razov's cerebral play up top -- would have been appropriate. Chivas has never won a playoff series.

Fraser is looking to quickly turn last year's losers into contenders. Chivas went 8-18-4 and finished last in the Western Conference after losing its veteran core of players to departures and retirement.

Here's what you need to know heading into preseason camp:

WHAT'S NEW?




Not quite everything, but nearly everything that matters. The management side has been gutted, with only co-owner/president Antonio Cué (and his brother, Lorenzo, not officially with the club but a major part of its braintrust) still standing.

The new face of the organization is Fraser's. The first-time head coach -- a former Galaxy star lauded for his work as an assistant coach at Real Salt Lake -- and his staff (including former Galaxy and UCLA star Greg Vanney) say they have a plan in mind, a sort of total-football approach to team harmony, that will supplant the foundation that crashed last year.

The arrival of two veterans -- central defender Jimmy Conrad (Temple City/Temple City HS and UCLA), acquired in the re-entry draft, and forward Alejandro Moreno, a former Galaxy striker picked up in a trade -- will play well into Fraser's team building, bringing veteran savvy and, especially Conrad, leadership qualities that the club lacked last year.

The Goats were masterful at the draft, pulling in five genuine prospects. Defender Zarek Valentin, the No. 4 overall pick (a central defender at Akron who will move to the right for Chivas), is considered can't-miss, and fellow first-rounder Victor Estupiñan, from Ecuador, is a most enticing forward. Their ability to contribute immediately will be crucial, but both are long-range selections.

Tristan Bowen (Van Nuys), who will be 20 on Jan. 30, arrives after a promising second season with the Galaxy. Three more draftees -- midfielders Jon Okafor (Brown) and Ernesto Carranza (Sacramento State) and defender Curtis Ushedo (Alabama-Birmingham) -- will battle for roster spots. So will former Chivas USA winger Francisco “Panchito” Mendoza, who will join training as a non-roster guest.

WHO'S GONE?

Along with head coach Martin Vasquez (fired), president Shaun Hunter (resigned to spend time with family) and VP of soccer operations Stephen Hamilton (resigned to follow other opportunities), the significant loss is captain Jonathan Bornstein (Los Alamitos/Los Alamitos HS and UCLA), for five years a Chivas stalwart, who took off for Mexico's UANL Tigres. Sadly, if Bornstein returns to MLS, he goes to Portland -- the Goats lost his rights to the Timbers in the expansion draft.

Loan deals for underachieving forward Giancarlo Maldonado (from Atlante in Mexico) and midfielder Osael Romero (from Vista Hermosa in El Salvador) weren't renewed. Midfielder Marcelo Saragosa -- made superfluous by Paulo Nagamura's midseason return from Mexico -- and veteran back Alex Zotinca, who played one half of MLS action, also were dropped.

THREE PIVOTAL PLAYERS

1. Paulo Nagamura: Chivas' best and most important player is a two-way central midfielder with a lot of bite and a propensity to push forward. Nagamura best sets the tone for the Goats, but we like him best when paired with a creator.

2. Alejandro Moreno: The Venezuelan forward (by way of Texas and UNC Greensboro) heads into his 10th MLS season with three MLS Cup championship rings (Galaxy 2002, Houston 2006, Columbus 2008) and a reputation as a physical, battling pest. His ability to create space for others should open opportunities for Justin Braun, Alan Gordon, Galindo, Bowen and/or Estupiñan.

3. Jimmy Conrad: The former U.S. national-teamer and 2005 MLS Defender of the Year might be past his prime, but his experience will be important in the development of the young defenders (Michael Umaña, Dario Delgado, Yamith Cuesta, Valentin, Carlos Borja), and his leadership and character will fill a void left in the locker room when Jesse Marsch and Claudio Suarez retired and Carey Talley headed east.

THREE PLAYERS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE:

1. Maykel Galindo: The Cuban forward was virtually unstoppable his first season with Chivas USA, netting a dozen goals and creating with Razov the best top tandem in the league. Since then it's been one injury after another, a lingering hernia problem causing the most damage. When fully healthy, which has been rare, he shows glimpses of his 2007 form. He played in only six games for the Goats last year and spent most of the season on loan to second-tier FC Tampa Bay. Galindo needs to show he's committed and in form.

1. Chukwudi Chijindu: The dreadlocked forward from Fontana (Damien HS) finished a great late sequence to secure one of Chivas' eight wins last year -- the 3-2 victory over San Jose on April 24 -- and faded, ending the season on loan to second-tier Miami FC. The Goats have a lot of forwards, and Chijindu must give Fraser a reason to keep him around.

3. Tristan Bowen: There's no doubting the fast, athletic Bowen's potential. Bruce Arena gave him 10 starts (and Bowen provided two goals and two assists) with the Galaxy last season, but he's still a project, and L.A. decided allocation money (used on cap space during  Juan Pablo Angel negotiations) was more valuable. He'll need to take a step forward to compete for real playing time.

THREE BIG QUESTIONS

1. Will Rodolfo Espinoza return? The Mexican winger quickly made his presence felt when he arrived last season from Chile, adding dimension to a too-often stagnant attack. The Goats haven't decided what to do with his option, but they'll need to soon. Our vote: Keep him.

2. What's Blair Gavin's status? The versatile midfielder was a likely Rookie of the Year finalist before a hamstring injury took him down with two months to go (and a relapse cut short a comeback attempt) last season. Gavin was just starting to work with the ball when New Year's arrived. He's huge in Chivas' plans, but so much depends on how quickly he can return to top form -- and whether he can do so.

3. Is Justin Braun for real? The big, lanky, some might say clumsy (not us, but some) forward suddenly seemed to “get” it last year, scoring nine goals and showing great technical and tactical advancement. He's certainly not your prototypical target forward -- most guys 6-foot-3 don't roam as much as Braun does -- and no question  he slowed as the season wore on. How will he fare against the new competition?

THREE GREATEST CONCERNS

1. Quality: Chivas has made some shrewd additions, and there's far more depth up top and in the back, but does the club have enough talent to compete through October? Conrad and Moreno are clear upgrades; Nagamura, Ante Jazic and goalkeeper Zach Thornton are good veterans; and Michael Lahoud deserves more responsibility. (And  Gavin, in form, is just fine.) But others expected to contribute are either untested or in need of further development.

2. Backline: This ought not be a worry, given Fraser's and Vanney's backgrounds, but the arrivals of Conrad and Valentin aren't going to make the problems disappear. It's a young group, for the most part, that was stymied by mistakes and inconsistency, and only left back Jazic among the holdovers appears certain of a starting job.

3. Scoring goals: Chivas often looked incapable of scoring goals in 2010. (Only D.C. United, the league's worst team, scored fewer than the 31 the Goats netted in 30 games.) Only Braun, Jesus Padilla (6) and Gavin (3) scored more than two goals. The addition of Moreno should help. (He scored just twice last year for Philadelphia, but he had seven assists and a lot of what he does to create goals doesn't show up on the stats.) And if Fraser's ideas work to plan, there certainly will be more scoring opportunities.

PRESEASON PLAN

It's a work in progress: The Goats have had so much to do the past three weeks that they haven't completely figured out where they're going to go or what they're going to do. The weekend is set -- training at HDC -- and then they plan a week off-site, somewhere in Southern California, but away from Carson. This will be a big team-bonding trip.

They'll return to HDC at the start of February, train for about 10 days (with a scrimmage or three worked in), then head for a week to Phoenix, where at least four other MLS teams will hold camp. That means games against MLS rivals.

The final month of training hasn't been determined, but Chivas figures to stay on old Field 6, their field southwest of the big stadium. The Goats traditionally play at least one friendly within driving distance, but no certainty that will occur this year.

OPENING DAY

Saturday, April 19 vs. Sporting Kansas City -- the ex-Wizards' first game under the new name -- at Home Depot Center. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

DEPTH CHART

Goalkeeper
1. Zach Thornton
2. Dan Kennedy

Backline
1. Mariano Trujillo + Jimmy Conrad* + Michael Umaña + Ante Jazic
2. Zarek Valentin* + Dario Delgado + Yamith Cuesta + Jorge Flores

Midfield
1. Rodolfo Espinoza + Michael Lahoud + Paulo Nagamura + Sal Zizzo
2. Jesus Padilla + Blair Gavin + Ben Zemanski + Blair Gavin

Forwards
1. Justin Braun + Alejandro Moreno*
2. Alan Gordon + Victor Estupiñan*

* -- newcomer