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|Oswaldo Minda, a regular on Ecuador's national team, could have a significant impact on Chivas USA's success this season.|
2011 record and finish: 8-14-12 (eighth place in Western Conference)
Additions: M Ryan Smith; D James Riley; M Oswaldo Minda; M Miller Bolaños; F Casey Townsend; D John Valencia; M Marvin Iraheta
Losses: F Justin Braun; M Gerson Mayen; D Zarek Valentin; M Paulo Nagamura; D Andrew Boyens; F Chukwudi Chujindu; M Simon Elliott; G Zach Thornton; D Mariano Trujillo; D Michael Umaña; F Marcos Mondaini; F Víctor Estupiñán
Key questions facing this team
1. Will all the changes pay off this time?
Wholesale changes are nothing new for Chivas USA, which hasn't found much consistency since joining the league. Since winning the West in their third season, the Goats have been on a gradual slide into irrelevance, finishing eighth in the conference two years running. The usual slate of offseason moves ensued, as more than a dozen players who saw meaningful minutes in Robin Fraser's first season hit the exits, leaving just 14 players from last season under contract. The Goats do look like they may have traded quantity for quality, especially in adding three South Americans: Ecuadorans Miller Bolaños and Oswaldo Minda, and Colombian defender John Valencia. But will it all work on the field?
2. Just how good are Bolaños and Minda?
The play of Minda and Bolaños will mark the difference between another frustrating year and a playoff run in 2012. The pair undoubtedly brings a certain quality. Minda was one of the better players in the Ecuadorian league over the past few seasons, and Bolaños is an up-and-comer who can influence games from the midfield as well. Neither will score a ton of goals, but if they adapt to the two-way pace of MLS, they can bring stability to a midfield that has been in flux since the departure of Sacha Kljestan, and a change of pace the league isn't used to from the deep midfield. That could be a game changer for the Goats.
3. Are off-the-field distractions in the works?
The Chivas franchise continues to have a well-earned reputation as a team in flux. Second in all things Los Angeles soccer to the rival Galaxy, the Goats can look forward to another season in the shadows as their fellow Home Depot Center tenants look to conquer MLS again, and win the CONCACAF Champions League.But 2012 will be a meaningful year for Chivas in gaining that long-sought-after identity. The club is working on its own stadium, whether that means moving south to San Diego or finding an alternative plan for the L.A. market. Those plans shouldn't interfere with the on-field product, but there may be some implications for the mojo of a club that has been looking for a rallying point for years.
Biggest X factor: Ryan Smith
Chivas is looking solid in defense, and should be able to build an above-average midfield around Minda. But offensive projection could be an issue, with last season's leading scorer, Justin Braun, off to Montreal, and Juan Pablo Angelnot getting any younger.
Enter Ryan Smith. In his second stint in MLS, the Englishman will be asked to carry a large load of the creative and goal-scoring duties for the Goats. If he's up to the task, Chivas' prospects increase substantially.
Breakout player to watch: Blair Gavin
Although he has shown some flashes over his first two seasons in the league, injuries have held back Gavin's MLS progress thus far. Entering his third season with the chance to play next to Minda, Gavin should be given more freedom to roam forward and link up with the front line. It's a position he should feel more comfortable in, so if he stays healthy 2012 could mark Gavin's coming out.
It's kind of surprising to say given Chivas' recent history of limited success, but this team looks like a contender. Chivas isn't overly deep or talented, but the Goats have some solid players spread around the field, and don't have any glaring weaknesses. The addition of quality in the midfield and a strengthening of the back line have shored up two areas that cost Fraser's team repeatedly last season.
The Goats won't be challenging the Galaxy or Seattle for Western Conference supremacy, but if their new additions fit in is as well on the field as they do on paper, they could well challenge the next tier of Western Conference clubs for a playoff spot. Add that to the potential long-term decision on the club's future, and 2012 could be a watershed year for the Chivas USA franchise.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.