Los Angeles Soccer: Francisco Mendoza
The veteran midfielder from Pasadena (St. Francis HS/UCLA) joined the Goats' preseason preparations this week and is set to sign with the club, likely on Saturday.
“We told you we were looking for experienced players, right? And Pete's been through the wars,” Chivas coach Robin Fraser said after Friday morning's fitness session at Home Depot Center. “He's won championships, he's been a very instrumental part of very good teams in this league. When the opportunity came up to get him, it was something we really had to jump at.”
Vagenas, 33, comes to Chivas after a season with Vancouver, in which he started 13 of the 16 league games in which he appeared. He spent the previous two years with Seattle, making 21 league appearances, after nine seasons with the Galaxy.
He helped L.A. win two MLS Cups, two U.S. Open Cups, a CONCACAF Champions' Cup and the 2002 Supporters' Shield, captaining the Galaxy to a MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup “double” in 2005. He also was with two U.S. Open Cup-winning sides with Seattle.
“We've known Pete ... gosh, his first year was my last year with the Galaxy. So I've known him a long time,” Fraser said. “[Assistant coach] Greg [Vanney] and Jim [Liston, the fitness coach] know him even better than I do. ... Pete's the kind of guy who has been an important part of locker rooms with very successful teams. And we keep coming back to that, looking for guys who have track record of success. And he's been very good.”
Chivas USA is going through its most difficult stretch of the season, with three straight losses and five matches without a win when victories are absolutely necessary to stay in the playoff race.
And the Goats (7-11-10), who have been beaten down by defensive liabilities and possession breakdowns, heads into Saturday afternoon's Major League Soccer game at Chicago missing another center back -- and considering a change in how they go about things.
David Junior Lopes is out after picking up a questionable red card in last week's loss to D.C. United, and with backline leader Heath Pearce out with a hamstring injury (and previous backline leader Jimmy Conrad retired after a concussion), there's not much depth in central defense.
Pearce, officially, is “questionable,” but he's targeting next Saturday's game -- at home against Toronto FC -- for his return. Chivas plays Wednesday at D.C. United.
Figure Andrew Boyens to team with Michael Umaña in the middle, with Chivas possibly taking a more conservative tack with its possession plan.
“We’ve got Andy Boyens, who has been training hard, and it’s an opportunity,” said midfielder Simon Elliott. “Heath’s on the mend -- he’ll be back soon -- but you have to look at it as an opportunity for someone to be raising their hand and saying, 'I deserve to play every week.' It’s what-are-you-preparing-to-do time.”
It has to happen now. The Goats have six games remaining, and they're only three points out of a playoff spot -- but are sixth of seven teams fighting for three berths (and separated by six points). And they're in the worst form of the seven.
“We have to win games,” Elliott said. “I think by and large the powers that be, the staff, the strength and conditioning guys, they get it right. From what I can tell, we focus on the right things. And as players, we have to put out hand up. We have to execute. We can't just talk about it, we have to go out and do it.”
CARSON -- Chivas USA has seven games left to prove they belong in the postseason. All seven are pivotal -- the Goats are just one point outside the bubble, and the stretch drive to the Major League Soccer season is going to get heated.
Saturday night's Home Depot Center encounter against D.C. United is something more.
How does Chivas USA head coach Robin Fraser describe it?
“Massive. So massive.”
The Goats (7-10-10) and D.C. (7-7-10) are among three teams just outside the top 10, and with showdowns 11 days apart -- they'll get together again Sept. 21 in Washington -- their battles represent a potential 12-point swing.
It's particularly important for the Goats (31 points), who have three fewer games to play than does D.C. (31), and one less than Philadelphia (35), New York (32) and Portland (32). The seven clubs likeliest to fight for the final four berths make for three matchups this weekend (the others: Sporting Kansas City-Houston and Philly-Portland), and Chivas is paying attention to the out-of-town scoreboard.
“I'm starting to watch [other games] a bit,” Fraser said. “I still think at the end of the day, it comes down to what we do. So I try not to get too caught up in the emotion swings of other teams' results. But you certainly are keeping an eye.”
WORTH NOTING: Chivas has released midfielder Francisco Mendoza, who returned to the Goats this year after playing for the club in 2005-08. He shares the club record for career appearances with Jonathan Bornstein, with 123. ... Right backs Zarek Valentin and Michael Lahoud, coming off injuries, are ready to go. ... Swiss center back Mattias Schnorf, from the second-tier NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks, and outside back Mark Bloom, who played this season for the USL Pro's Charlotte Eagles, have been on trial this week with Chivas. ... D.C. United leads the all-time series, 6-4-2. At HDC, it's 2-2-2. ... Chivas won last year's game in Carson, with Justin Braun scoring the lone goal.
CARSON -- A new formation -- or, rather, an old one revisited -- and a spectacular night from Justin Braun has put Chivas USA in postseason position. No kidding.
Braun's second hat trick of the season, on three superbly taken goals, delivered a comprehensive 3-0 triumph Saturday night over the Houston Dynamo, vaulting the Goats (6-7-8) into sixth place in Major League Soccer's Western Conference -- and into 10th overall, good enough to snag the last playoff berth if the season stopped now.
That would mean more in a couple of months, but head coach Robin Fraser, who altered his alignment, changed a couple of assignments and welcomed back from injury a pivotal performer, wasn't complaining.
“More than anything right now, it means we're within striking range,” he said after Chivas pushed its unbeaten streak to five games. “Certainly, we want to make sure we're always in striking range.”
Braun, taking to heart some lessons on how to be more precise in the final third, scored in the 31st, 40th and 86th minutes, benefiting mightily from Fraser's alterations. He came into the game with just four goals -- three of them in the May 15 victory at New York -- but finished as the club's No. 2 all-time goal scorer.
His third of the night was his 19th as a Goat, one more than Maykel Galindo tallied in his time in red and white and 11 off Ante Razov's club record.
“It's cool to get another hat trick,” Braun said. “I kind of went through a dry spell there, but it's nice to get that weight off my shoulders. But the most important thing is that the team came out, we played well collectively and got three points tonight, which we needed.”
The Goats notched their third shutout of the last four games and might have scored more. Michael Lahoud -- back in midfield, on the right flank, with Zarek Valentin back at right back -- forced a diving save from Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall in the 14th minute.
Valentin was back on the right because Ante Jazic was back from a calf injury -- and he was outstanding on the flank, setting up the first and third goals with outstanding balls from the left.
Fraser went back to a 4-1-4-1 alignment, as he used in preseason and at season's start, pairing Nick LaBrocca and Blair Gavin atop a midfield triangle with Simon Elliott underneath. It made a possession side more possessive.
“We felt like when we possess really well, we are most dangerous,” Fraser said. “Our midfield certainly has had moments where they have been very, very good in possession, so it was just a thought to go back to that and try to regain more possession.
“We're a little bit more mature and a little further ahead than we were at the beginning of the season [and] we felt very strongly that this group of midfielders would be able to take some possession and turn it into dangerous opportunities. Certainly nice when you get it right.”
A quick look at Chivas' victory:
BEST PLAYER: How do you not go with Braun? He scored three very fine goals, caused problems for the Dynamo defense from start to finish, and showed great discipline in his runs and positioning as he went for goal.
CARSON -- Chivas USA used two gorgeous goals and its finest defensive performance of the season to score its first victory in more than a month, an impressive 2-0 decision Wednesday night over the San Jose Earthquakes before a sparse gathering at Home Depot Center.
Ben Zemanski came off the bench to score on a bending rocket of a shot from 30 yards in the 64th minute, and Nick LaBrocca's team-best fifth goal in the 84th, from substitute Francisco Mendoza's perfectly weighted pass, sealed the triumph as the Goats (5-7-6) completed a season sweep of the Quakes (5-6-6) and vaulted past them and into sixth place in the Western Conference.
It was a triumph built on defense, with, especially, the backline denying the Quakes even one decent look at the net.
“I thought our defense really answered the challenge and made great decisions tonight,” head coach Robin Fraser gushed afterward. “As a result we were able to really prevent too many dangerous opportunities, and we're really excited about the shutout.”
Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy was required to make only three saves -- just one of them, an 86th-minute header by Yorba Linda's Steven Lenhart, was the least bit troublesome -- and the Goats took command as they found a rhythm and after Zemanski and then Mendoza came onto the field.
The victory, Fraser said, was “a big boost for us in terms of our concentration. We have to recognize when we are concentrating, defensively we're not giving up the types of things that we have been, and as a result, as long as we're in the game, we give ourselves a chance. ...
“I think for us it was important that we go through the exercise of really focusing on not giving up dangerous opportunities. Ad we didn't [give up dangerous opportunities] and kept ourselves firmly in the game, and as we started to play better, we found a goal.”
A quick look at Chivas' victory:
BEST PLAYER: Several candidates, including both goal scorers and central defender Michael Umaña, who was solid from start to finish in helping to minimize the Quakes' opportunities and as a conduit to move the ball through and out of the back.
But our vote goes to central midfielder Simon Elliott, at 37 the oldest man on the field (and the Goats' captain). He indefatigably outbattled San Jose's Brad Ring and Sam Cronin for command in midfield and contributed mightily to Chivas' attack as a point man in possession and in creating opportunities in the final third.
The Goats will be missing as many as 11 players, nine of them with reasonable starting experience, when they take on the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night at Home Depot Center, as injury, suspension and international duty carves up their roster.
"We're definitely stretched," head coach Robin Fraser said Tuesday, "and I think this is the time of year where that happens, [with the CONCACAF] Gold Cup, Copa America, what have you ... international dates. And I think all the teams are going through it, for the most part.
"Yeah, we are going to be stretched on our roster, but thats why we have a roster."
Everyone is going through it, to some degree -- Vancouver is missing three players because of international call-ups -- but the few are feeling the impact quite like the Goats (3-4-4). Moreno is off with Venezuela's national team, Boyens and Elliott are with New Zealand's, and Mondaini and Flores are serving red-card suspensions.
Then there's that six-man injured list, with everyone closer to returning to the field -- and midfielder Paulo Nagamura and defender Michael Lahoud possible for Wednesday's game or, if not, for Saturday's against the Portland Timbers. Midfielder Blair Gavin, forward Tristan Bowen and defender Seth Owusu also are nearing the end of injury layoffs, Fraser said.
Francisco "Panchito" Mendoza endeared himself to Chivas USA fans with his tireless efforts on the flank during the club's first four seasons: He was the Goats' first Mexican hero, and when Club Deportivo Guadalajara called in his loan following the 2008 Major League Soccer campaign, he was the team leader in appearances (117 games, including playoffs) and had played more games in the league than any other Mexican-born player.
The winger played in just five games for Guadalajara -- and eight more for Tapatio, its reserve team -- before departing on loan deals to Jaguares in Mexico's Primera Division and Club Tijuana and Indios de Ciudad Juarez in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso.
He returns this season to Chivas USA a little older (he's 25 now) and a lot wiser, and an impressive preseason camp has given him a starting role on the wing -- he's a natural lefty but is capable of playing on either side, which he did while starting eight of nine preparatory matches.
We chatted with Mendoza, through an interpreter, as he and the Goats prepared for Saturday night's league opener against Sporting Club Kansas City at Home Depot Center.
1. Is this a homecoming of sorts for you? So much has changed at Chivas USA since you departed -- and is changing right now.
I'm very excited to be back to the team that gave me the opportunity to be a professional. Now that I've come back, the whole roster is different. The staff is different. But I feel comfortable. I feel like the first time I got here, because [head coach Robin Fraser] is trusting me, and I'm gaining his trust in training.
2. What's your impression of Fraser?
I think he's a coach that knows what he wants. He knows what he's doing. He's very demanding when he's working, and that's important, because you know the player that is playing the best will be the one that will be on the field.
3. You followed your dream to join Guadalajara but didn't see much action and have spent most of past two years on one loan deal or another? Are you disappointed with how it all played out?
That's what I wanted, to go to Chivas Guadalajara -- the best team in Mexico. I learned many things, and I think things went well there. I think it was a very good experience. If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it again.
Forgive us if we're wondering who's going to score goals.
That's five zeros in the last seven games, three in the last four, and, wait, it gets worse. Chivas scored just five goals in the nine games. Three of them were tallied by Alan Gordon, who was traded Friday to Toronto FC. Another was product of Jesus Padilla, who was dismissed this week from the team.
That leaves one measly goal, by rookie Ecuadoran forward Victor Estupiñan, who predicted as preseason opened that he'd score 30 this season. The Goats sure could use them.
Head coach Robin Fraser has been adamant that he's fine with the attack as long as it is creating chances, and the Goats have created some fine chances -- not always consistently so, perhaps -- that they haven't put away. At some point, they need to put them away.
It took more than a month for approval to arrive on loan deals bringing in goalkeeper Sergio Arias and winger Francisco "Panchito" Mendoza, a former Goats regular, from Guadalajara, the parent club. Word came down this week on both, and the club finally announced their acquisitions Wednesday.
The agreement to bring in Owusu, a 22-year-old Ghanaian defender coming on loan from Tarkwa-based Medeama FC, was completed several weeks ago, and he had been awaiting his visa and other paperwork since.
Owusu, whose physique and athleticism make quick impressions, trained with Chivas' reserves Saturday while the first team played a friendly against UCLA, and he trained with the full team for the first time Tuesday. Fraser, who had scouted him for at least a year, is just starting to get a sense of what Owusu will provide.
"He's traveled a long way," Fraser said. "I think it's tough whenever you travel that long and immediately get into a training session. ... I think he's still getting himself adjusted. He's pretty quiet, but he's pretty intense. He came in with a good attitude, wants to do whatever he can to help the team. He listens and works hard. That's pretty much all I can tell you so far."
Owusu, a burgeoning Ghanaian national-teamer who has experience at left back and in central defense, figures to partner Jimmy Conrad in the middle of the backline, forcing Costa Rican defender Michael Umaña into a reserve role.
Conrad's first impression: "I was like, 'Man, that is a man-mountain.' He's a big dude. He's quick and strong -- it's not even fair, the gene pool he's in and the one I'm playing in."
Fraser had described Owusu to Conrad and others in glowing terms, and Conrad said he's "everything I thought he'd be. ... He's just got to get more comfortable, and I'm sure he'll get a little more vocal, and, obviously, when you play in the back, communication is a big part of it. So I expect that to come slowly as he eases himself in the group."
There were positives to be found in Chivas USA's dress rehearsal Saturday night, but not the kind that show up on the scoreboard. The Goats lost, again, this time to a college team, and head into the final two weeks of preparations for their Major League Soccer opener needing, one veteran said, “a little more urgency.”
Chivas had the better of play most of the way in a 2-1 loss to UCLA at Home Depot Center's track and field stadium, but putting away chances continues to be a struggle and defense on set plays has to be a concern.
The result itself doesn't matter, not really, except that the Goats were looking to duplicate a regular-season match -- from pregame to final whistle, including a close-to-first-choice lineup and just three substitutions -- and will be hoping the real thing, starting March 19 against Sporting Kansas City at HDC, doesn't end in defeat.
- Another goal, just their second in the past six preseason matches, and by Alan Gordon -- playing up top again -- who has netted three of the five Chivas has scored in eight games. Unfortunately, Gordon was overwhelmed by the defensive pressure UCLA applied, and head coach Robin Fraser did not appear pleased.
- The return of Justin Braun, last season's top scorer, who has been slowed or sidelined the entire preseason by an ankle injury. He came on in the 64th minute for Gordon and added a spark to the attack.
- The Goats fared well against UCLA's defense-stretching speed, especially center backs Jimmy Conrad and Michael Umaña, who answered a few questions about their ability to contend with fast foes.
It's a work in progress, the concepts and culture Fraser is implementing, and it's coming in starts and stops.
“We have two or three guys thinking the same thing [on the field], and maybe certain plays we've got four or five guys thinking the same thing,” said Conrad, the only UCLA alum in the Chivas lineup. “We need to get to a point where we've got everybody thinking the same thing, reading the same thing, picking up on the same cues -- the ball's here, here's how we're going to move; the ball turns over, this is how we're going to support each other.
“That can be a little bit cleaner. I think we do that at times. I think we show that when we do it right, it looks really good, and it flows, and it looks nice. It's aesthetically pleasing, if you will. But there's going to be some times we have to grit it out, and we have to just win balls in good areas and try to turn it the other way. There's a lot of different ways to win games, and I think we're trying to just do it one way, and I think that's what's limiting us right now.”
THE GAME: Gordon gave the Goats a 23rd-minute lead, turning a defender after taking a pass from Francisco Mendoza, and Conrad nearly made it 2-0 off a 35th-minute corner kick, but the ball was cleared off the line. UCLA pulled even, through Chandler Hoffman, on a corner kick three minutes later, and Andy Rose converted a 76th-minute penalty kick after a Umaña hand ball.
"You joking?" Fraser said when asked the identity of the club's newest trialist. "None of you [media] guys know? ... Uh, helluva goal scorer in this league 12 years ago."
Ah. Trinidadian striker Stern John, probably the finest forward to play in Major League Soccer's first half-decade, when he netted 44 goals over the 1998 and 1999 seasons for the Columbus Crew. John, now 34, took off for England after the '99 campaign and has suited up for nine clubs there, mostly below the Premier League, and scoring at a decent rate in stints with Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City, Coventry City and Southampton.
John, who played last season for Crystal Palace and on loan for Ipswich Town, is coming off a knee injury and not yet ready for game action, but there was no questioning the power and accuracy of his shot.
"He was really looking for an opportunity to get in with a club," Fraser said. "As you can tell, he doesn't look like he's necessarily quite ready, but when a guy who's scored goals in places he has [comes along], you take a look at him."
John, who as a young MLS player impressed with his quickness, power and knack in front of the net, was just fantastic in 1998, scoring an MLS-best 26 goals. He then tied for the league lead with 18 in 1999.
"One of [MLS's best]. Absolutely one of them," said Fraser, who was a center back for the Galaxy when John was in the league. "I know I had my battles with him, and it was funny: Carlos [Llamosa, a Chivas USA assistant coach and former MLS defender] said the same thing, and then Jimmy [Conrad] afterwards said the same thing. We've all had to deal with him for sure."
Also new in camp is Argentine midfielder Marcos Mondaini, 26, who came out of Boca Juniors' academy and has played, on loan from the Buenos Aires giant, for Ecuadoran clubs Emelec and Barcelona, for Nacional in Uruguay and most recently for Colombia's Atletico Nacional. He played the final 29 minutes on the right flank in Friday's 0-0 draw with D.C. United at Home Depot Center.
"He's just a player I've kind of watched for a while," Fraser said. "Quick, crafty ... definitely an interesting player who's done pretty well in a couple different countries. We're just going to see where it goes and see how it is and see how he fits into the group and how he does."
A club official said Friday night that Mondaini likely will be signed in the next few days.
If you needed concrete proof that Francisco “Panchito” Mendoza is back to stay, it was there on stage Wednesday night at the Standard in downtown L.A.
Chivas USA was unveiling their new jerseys, with the Corona logo on the front, and the club flew in five players from the team's camp in Arizona for the occasion. Among the quintet: Mendoza.
Need more proof: Managing partner and club president and Antonio Cué says the deal is done, that Mendoza has signed, that all the loose ends have been tied.
Not quite: Another Chivas official said the contract has been submitted to the league, which has not yet signed off on it -- and has asked more than once for additional paperwork. That official's understanding is that Mendoza is coming on loan from Guadalajara, which he joined in 2009 after four seasons with Chivas USA. He has played little for the Mexican powerhouse and in loans to Jaguares and second-tier Club Tijuana and last fall for second-tier Indios de Ciudad Juarez.
Also signed, but not yet announced: Mexican goalkeeper Sergio Arias, who is definitely arriving on loan from Guadalajara. (Coach Robin Fraser said when camp opened that the deal was done.) Arias, too, was on display at the Standard, and Cué told him, while introducing him to those on hand: “You're the future of this team. We believe in you.”
(Wonder what Zach Thornton and Dan Kennedy, Chivas' other netminders, will think of that.)
Also working as models: defender Jimmy Conrad and forwards Justin Braun and Alejandro Moreno. All head back to Arizona on Thursday morning, and the team returns home after scrimmaging the Vancouver Whitecaps on Friday.
PROGRESS REPORT: Conrad on how the club had progressed in Arizona:
“I would say that we've really started to make concrete the way we're going to move as a team, our team shape. I think having a couple games against quality opponents [in losses to Seattle and Real Salt Lake] has really helped us out because we got to see that what we've been working on really does work.
“And once that belief starts to kick in, that this is the right way to play -- and this is the way we're going to play -- then that becomes a spark. Once you get that spark, I mean … you know, it's limitless. You're bound by nothing by that point.”
After giving up a good chunk of allocation money in the deal to bring in veteran defender Heath Pearce from FC Dallas, Chivas USA recovered some of it Wednesday in a trade sending midfielder Sal Zizzo to the Portland Timbers.
Zizzo, 23, a former UCLA standout from San Diego, joined the Goats via a lottery last July following three frustrating seasons in Germany with Hannover 96. Used as a wide midfielder, he made 10 appearances for Chivas with one start and one assist.
Zizzo figured to be in the running for a starting job on the wing for Chivas, but Francisco Mendoza's return from Mexico -- he hasn't yet signed with Chivas, but it's a matter of time -- has strengthened the Goats on the flanks. Mendoza and Michael Lahoud seem the likeliest wing starters.
“Zizzo is a player we’ve been interested in pursuing for some time now,” Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson said in a statement. “We are delighted to add such a quality player to our roster.”
The clubs and league won't make public the allocation figures in these, or any, trades, but Pearce unquestionably cost more than Zizzo brought in, probably by a substantial margin. Allocation money can be used to acquire players or “pay down” salaries to fit under the salary cap.
Yes, that was Simon Elliott in midfield for Chivas USA on Monday afternoon, the holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation Goats coach Robin Fraser presented in a Home Depot Center scrimmage against the San Jose Earthquakes.
The New Zealander, whose Major League Soccer career started 12 years ago with the Galaxy, began a trial this past weekend with Chivas USA. He's 36, but his performance in South Africa during last summer's World Cup testifies he's capable of being influential in the right role.
“Simon has played hundreds of games and the Olympics and World Cup and that sort of thing,” Fraser said after Chivas' 1-0 victory. “You look at Simon, I thought he was New Zealand's best player in the World Cup last year. … I just think he's got a tremendous understanding of the game, and I think he can bring a lot to a team.”
Elliott's countryman Andrew Boyens, a 6-foot-4 defender who played sparingly he past three seasons for the New York Red Bulls (and previously was with Toronto FC), also is in camp. He saw time as a center back and left back against San Jose.
Elliott, a teammate of Fraser's for two seasons in L.A. and two more with the Columbus Crew, says he also contacted the Galaxy about potential opportunities.
“I live here -- my better half is in L.A. -- so it just makes sense, if I can, to try and play here,” Elliott said after Chivas' 1-0 victory. “I approached both of the teams here, and this one seemed to be a decent option.”
Elliott fared well in front of the backline Monday, playing the first of three 35-minute periods in the 105-minute scrimmage. He was behind Paulo Nagamura and Blair Gavin in an inspired midfield triangle that was pivotal to Chivas' control of the early action.
Chivas USA is training in San Luis Obispo County, but two of the Mexican trialists hoping to hook up with the Goats are gone.
Veteran defender Joaquin Beltran and young midfielder Dmitri Gonzalez, among five non-roster players Chivas coach Robin Fraser and his staff are looking at, left camp when the team trekked Sunday to Paso Robles.
Beltran, 33, was looking for employment after leaving Gallos Blancos de Queretaro. He also has played for Pumas UNAM, Necaxa and Cruz Azul. Gonzalez, 21, formerly was with Estudiantes Tecos.
The other non-roster players in camp are former Chivas USA winger Francisco “Panchito” Mendoza, veteran MLS pool goalkeeper Kevin Guppy (Chino Hills/Chino Hills HS and Cal State Northridge) and local midfielder Norberto Ochoa (Riverside/Riverside Poly HS), the brother of Estudiantes Tecos forward Sammy Ochoa.
Chivas will play its first preseason scrimmage Tuesday against the USL Premier Development League's Fresno Fuego, either in Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo.