The new era dawning for Chivas USA is about a lot more than an impressive new head coach and all of his plans to make the Goats into a true powerhouse, but it does begin and end with Robin Fraser.
The former U.S. national team defender played a prominent role in Real Salt Lake's rise to an MLS Cup title as a member of Jason Kreis' staff, and now he looks to transform the Goats, coming off a worst-in-the-West campaign, along some of the same lines.
He has reconstructed the roster, bringing in depth, experience and leadership where it was lacking, and implemented a philosophy extolling the virtues of intelligence and proactive play that he says he believes will bring the Goats unprecedented success.
Just don't expect miracles.
“My expectations?” Fraser mused during preparations this week for Chivas USA's opener Saturday night against Sporting Club Kansas City at Home Depot Center. “I guess I try to keep it realistic, but even when I played on bad teams, I always thought I was going to win every game. That was my expectation going in.
“With such a new group, it probably makes sense to be a little more cautious, in terms of your expectations, but at the end of the day, I expect us to do well. Because I think we have some good players, and we have solid foundation and principles in place, and I think we should do well.”
There's no question the Goats should do better than they did last year, when they tried to compete with a substandard roster and limped to an 8-18-4 record, good for 15th of 16 MLS clubs. Rookie coach Martin Vasquez was dismissed at season's end -- not for the results, but because he wouldn't demote an assistant coach -- and club president Shawn Hunter and vice president of soccer operations Stephen Hamilton departed soon after.
It was the initial steps in a remaking of the franchise, which had enjoyed some on-field success (one Western Conference regular-season title, playoff appearances in 2006-09, but never a postseason series victory) while failing to build the kind of fan base envisioned when Club Deportivo Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara and Antonio Cué unveiled MLS's first Mexican franchise for the 2005 season.
Cué, the managing partner, took the presidency and appointed Stanford-educated Jose Domene (whose father was once president of Monterrey-based UANL Tigres) as interim general manager. Fraser was lured to L.A. from Utah as 2011 began.
Fraser's impact extends beyond the field, and there's an optimism surrounding the club that didn't exist in 2010 and was rarely seen when the team was playing well under former coach Preki, who was rather a martinet.
“He's the face of the franchise,” Domene says, “and [everyone within the club] sees discipline, they see hard work, they see positive thinking, and can in many ways [have an impact].” Fraser's initial interview was so impressive, the GM says, “because he not only said the right things, but we believe he does live what he says. He's not only words, but he acts on it.”
Fraser, 44, was among the finest center backs ever to play in MLS, spending the first 10 seasons with the Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew. His staff includes his former L.A. teammate Greg Vanney, another former national-teamer with whom he has spent years making plans for running an MLS club.
He was able to test many of his ideas with Real Salt Lake, but he has found Chivas USA “a different animal.”
“Having been through kind of a rebuilding process with Salt Lake,” Fraser says, “you have certain things in your mind that you know work, so you come in and start applying them, and they you realize it's an entirely new group of players and the exact things that were cause of success [with RSL] maybe aren't going to be the exact same things here.”
It's still early in the process. There are 13 new players on the roster -- the newcomers a mix of veteran leaders (defender Jimmy Conrad, midfielder Simon Elliott, forward Alejandro Moreno), in-their-prime MLS talents (U.S. national team defender Heath Pearce, midfielder Nick LaBrocca, defender Andrew Boyens), a back-in-the-fold club icon (winger Francisco Mendoza), an Argentine playmaker (Marcos Mondaini) and an assortment of prized youngsters (defenders Zarek Valentin and Seth Owusu, forwards Victor Estupiñan and Tristan Bowen, goalkeeper Sergio Arias) -- and if the additions have greatly bolstered the talent and depth, especially on the backline and in midfield, time will be needed to build the appropriate chemistry.
“We have a long way to go,” Fraser said. “We're very much in our infancy. It does take a long time. How satisfied am I with [our progress]? Very satisfied, at times, but that's the whole nature of it. It's going to be good at times, and it's going to be inconsistent, because it's relatively new.”
The Goats struggled to score goals during preseason and will be hoping Justin Braun, who led the team with nine last year, can finish chances generated by a superior cast. The return of Elliott and returning midfielders Blair Gavin, Paulo Nagamura and Michael Lahoud from injuries will help.
“I think every team would like to have a little more attacking prowess in the final third,” said Conrad, the de facto captain. “We're still working out those kinks, and there's a real fine line between success and failure.”
Where that line lies is open to interpretation. The Goats' chief aim this year: to improve. "First and foremost," Conrad says, “to execute Robin's game plan. I think it starts there. I think we get anything above and beyond that, they you're starting to get past what you have control over.”
Fraser, Conrad says, “wants to see smart soccer, a brand of soccer that's efficient, that we're working hard and we're working smart. If we do that and we do it well, then we're going to win a lot more games, and I think we'll surprise some people. ... We always want to be dictating what's happening, offensively and defensively. When you're watching a game, you might not always understand how we're moving defensively, but we're trying to bait [opponents] into certain areas, and we're trying to win the ball in those areas, and if we do that more often than not, and make it difficult for teams to break us down -- and then when transition, if we can make that right pass that can kill teams, then we're going to be in a good spot.”
This year isn't about winning -- “Turning a club around is not as easy as a lot of people think …,” Domene says, “otherwise, everybody would just do it” -- and management is preaching patience, but success is desired sooner than later.
“I think first of all, we want to see improvement,” Domene says . “You can't romp before you learn how to walk. We have to learn how to walk first, improve day by day, and then with hard work the results will be there. It's a long season. We all know anything can happen in MLS.
“We definitely think we can make a run at the playoffs, and once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Says Conrad: “The big goal would be just to make the playoffs, but I think this club wants more and demands more, and hopefully we can do a little bit better than that.”
Most observers would be surprised. The West is loaded, and seventh place wouldn't be a bad finish for the Goats. Some prognosticators have Chivas finishing worst than that, and Conrad says he's excited “mainly [for] the opportunity to prove people wrong. We're not expected to do much. There isn't too much pressure. We should fly under the radar, but I think we have a group here that can do some special things.”
Fraser doesn't know what others are saying about his club.
“I don't care. I don't care,” Fraser says. “They pick us first, they pick us last, it doesn't matter, because at the end of the day, how we are going to do is about how we do and our impression of ourselves. … And regardless of what everyone else says, we know how good or how bad we should be, and we know where we need to get to.”