There was a time a few months back where D.C. United and Chivas USA were far and away the two MLS clubs in the worst situation. Both clubs were racking up hapless losses on the field, front office issues had left both fanbases angry, and there was at least some kind of threat to the very existence of both clubs as we know them.
For United, two of the three problems were surprises; the brutal record and the front office firings on the business/PR side were both beyond the expectations of even the most pessimistic fans. Out in LA, Chivas had things a little differently; all three problems were either expected or issues that have existed for years.
Chivas was roughly this bad in 2012, but they were more quietly bad than this year's spectacular failure. Just about everything that could change did, from ownership to club philosophy to coaches to players. While Chivas definitely needed to change on the bench and on their roster, the changes at the top sent them in what is obviously the wrong direction.
Charismatic head coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola (a.k.a. El Chelis) made for great entertainment, but his teams were utterly chaotic in games and constantly subject to change in terms of player selection. Much was made of his use of a back three, but from where I sit at least the bigger problem was that a squad of mostly bad players who were totally unfamiliar with each other were playing an incoherent system (that didn't always involve a back three, for whatever that's worth). Watching Chivas early in the season was entertaining in the same way that watching any awful but charmingly shambolic movie is.
Despite all that, the early returns for Chivas were shockingly good. Following a season-opening 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew in which they were countered to death, the Goats took 10 of the next 12 points available, including beating FC Dallas 3-1 and crushing the Chicago Fire 4-1 in Chicago. Even after their streak ended, the results weren't that poor: 1-0 losses to the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake and a 2-2 draw with San Jose is a three-game spell almost any team in MLS could have without declaring a crisis.
Things went over a cliff after that, though. Adding those three games in, Chivas proceeded to go fourteen games without a win, only picking up four draws along the way. At one point, they lost seven straight games, during which they scored just twice. It was during this time that they also traded away Juan Agudelo, far and away their best player not named Dan Kennedy. The streak was only broken with a home win over Toronto FC, which a) almost doesn't count and b) should make you, DC United fan, very upset when you think about our home games against TFC.
Long story short, MLS figured Chivas out. Chelis could inspire his players to run themselves into the ground, but he gave them virtually no framework in which to do so. They were a classic example of a team that works hard but doesn't work smart. Throw in underwhelming defensive recruits like Joaquin Velazquez and Walter Vilchez starting whenever they were fit, and you had a recipe for disaster.
The inevitable coaching change came at the end of May, but Jose Luis Real - "El Güero" if you prefer nicknames or umlauts - didn't actually coach his team until mid-June. Out went the pick-up game formations and chaos, and in came a far more rigid, defensive system. Real correctly figured out that his players are mostly young and in many cases aren't very good, so he simplified every role on the field and focused on trying to keep his team solid defensively first and foremost. It has been far less entertaining than El Chelis's circus team, but the Goats almost immediately stopped getting clobbered. They'd lose, sure, but they'd be in the game.
El Güero's 2W-5D-7L record is not impressive, but one thing they do almost every week is start well. Since the coaching change, Chivas has scored 7 goals in the first 20 minutes of their game, as well as 9 first-half goals. They've taken the lead in 9 games out of 13 with El Güero in charge. Given United's anemic offense, a slow start at the back will likely be punished. United must be ready to defend well all over the field from the opening whistle, or this game will probably end up as yet another embarrassing, aggravating defeat.
You might already be piecing together the flip side of this situation. Chivas takes the lead regularly, yet they've only managed two wins. That's because they've given up 14 goals in the final 45 minutes of matches under Real. While United has been unable to turn dominance into goals, Chivas is unable to turn leads into results. In six different games, Chivas has conceded a result-changing goal in the 80th minute or later. The new system might make Chivas more defensively sound, but when it's time for focus and mental strength, the young Goats are still lacking.
Now that I've brought up their system 65 times, let's actually take a look at how they'll line up:
The only real injury question mark is Carlos Bocanegra, who was pulled at the last minute on Wednesday night with a bruised heel. If Charlie Blackmouth can't play, Mario de Luna will stay in the team that lost 1-0 at Seattle mid-week. That's a drastic change in terms of style: Bocanegra is slower but great in the air and a commanding leader, while de Luna is faster, smaller, and rather quiet in terms of organizing.
Part of the reason Chivas has had to emphasize defensive play is because they just don't have many good defenders. Carlos Borja and Marky Delgado are not natural fullbacks; Borja is the sort of utility defender that doesn't appear natural anywhere, while Delgado has spent most of his young career playing defensive midfield. Bobby Burling, meanwhile, is a journeyman whose outstanding size and bravery are mitigated by the fact that he's slow of foot and of thought.
Bocanegra or no, this is a very beatable defense. It's very easy to play in behind this group, as there are no standouts in terms of speed, acceleration, or lateral quickness. de Luna is the best in those categories, but he's not exactly Marvell Wynne. I'd also strongly recommend urging guys like Luis Silva and Nick DeLeon to dribble at their defenders as often as possible. There's no good reason for United to play through the air with Burling and possibly Bocanegra involved, and against guys that lack lateral quickness it's always a good idea to try to go past them on the dribble. You either get past the guy, or he fouls you in a good spot.
A big key for United will be to stretch the game out on the large surface at the StubHub Center (ugh). Chivas keeps a narrow formation in part to leave fewer gaps, but they still have some players who lack the positional discipline to make that plan work. If United can spread the game out and maintain possession, Chivas will eventually get pulled out of position, leaving gaps to exploit for United. Chivas wants to play a short-passing game in close quarters, so stretching things out and emphasizing our wide players will also leave them in bad spots offensively if we turn the ball over.
The midfield is intentionally asymmetrical, as Chivas uses rookie Carlos Alvarez in a narrow role to help the central midfield out. Alvarez is very much a central player by nature, so when Chivas does have the ball he usually looks to cut inside as soon as possible. He's not really a threat to round whoever we play at left back; rather, he'll look to play people in behind or dribble at the left-center back - likely Daniel Woolard - on a regular basis.
On the opposite flank, recent signing Bryan de la Fuente, a USA u20 who warmed the bench for Chivas back in 2010 and 2011 before having a cup of coffee with los Xolos in Tijuana in 2012. He was cut loose there, and was essentially out of soccer for a year before resurfacing in recent months. While de la Fuente is not a standout player, he's a decent all-around wide midfielder who gives the Goats the only width they really have with the current starting eleven.
Usually, teams that are staggered like this tend to heavily rely on the true wide man in terms of generating chances, but Chivas is very heavily right-sided since moving from the 4141 Real instituted upon his arrival. The Goats will look to supply Alvarez with as much of the ball as possible, and if he drifts too far inside his position ends up being covered by central midfielder Edgar Mejia.
Borja generally stays home unless the opponent drops nine men behind the ball, so United can short-circuit the Chivas attack if we just make sure Alvarez is forced to stay wide and play like a true right winger. He doesn't have the speed or the mentality for that role, and without his supply of through balls and chipped crosses, the Goats will struggle to create anything. If James Riley retains his spot somehow, he'll have to do a lot better forcing Alvarez to stay wide than he did against Justin Mapp. In fact, Riley's starting position should be two or three yards closer to center than is normal, because this is a situation where cheating inside will not be punished. As long as Alvarez is the nominal right midfielder, the threat is that he'll cut in, not that he'll create from the touchline.
Up top is the knight in shining armor for Chivas USA. Torres is small, not particularly muscular, and lacks anything above average speed. He's not a skillful dribbler, and he doesn't have the sort of powerful shot that grabs attention. Instead, he's just a classic goal poacher, and a damn good one at that. Chivas Guadalajara sent him north after a loss of confidence saw him score just 1 goal in the Clausura season, and whatever Real has said to him has worked wonders.
Torres tends to do far less roaming around than most MLS goalscorers; instead, he stays as centrally as possible, looking to exploit confusion between the two center backs and also placing him in a good spot to pounce on loose balls in the box. The job here isn't so much to shut him down as to deny him service; like any poacher, if you take away his supply, he'll mostly disappear from the game.
A high line in the back will also likely help. Chivas just doesn't have much speed, and when a team voluntarily plays narrow, they're usually going to rely on a speedster up front to at least maintain some vertical space (see: Real Salt Lake with Joao Plata and Robbie Findley). If Chivas is already going to more or less not play on the wings, they'll essentially have to pass their way out of a phone booth if United plays a higher line and leaves little space between the lines.
If all of this sounds bizarrely aggressive given United's awful road record, consider this: Chivas has six home losses, and they've given up two or more goals on six different occasions at home. Assuming United doesn't come out asleep - big assumption, I know - this is a team that struggles in the second half and generally settles into a defensive shell regardless of whether they get their normal early goal or not. Playing defensively as the visitors will likely result in a very drab 0-0 draw, and this is United's best chance at getting a road win all season.
If Chivas isn't having success with the 4132, El Güero does have alternative plans. He seems to prefer an empty bucket 442, with Mejia dropping back alongside Oswaldo Minda. Against Seattle, he used that to survive the first half, and then switched to a 4231 with Eric Avila coming in on the right wing, Alvarez moving into the middle, and forward Julio Morales playing down the left. While Chivas finished the game with only one shot on goal, they did look far better and left Seattle essentially hanging on grimly rather than seeing the game out with confidence. Don't be surprised to see Chivas make a shift to one of these formations if things aren't working.
As far as set pieces go, Chivas doesn't have many good targets beyond Bocanegra (who managed 14 goals with the national team as a defender). Burling is a towering presence, but is generally slow enough that he struggles to lose his marker. However, against Seattle they had numerous near-misses thanks to some quality service. The funny thing was that it wasn't one specific player. Mejia, de Luna, and Alvarez all put some good balls into the box, both on the wing and even from near midfield. Generally speaking, the idea was to play it no closer to goal than the penalty spot, so that goalkeeper Michael Gspurning was forced to stay on his line.
Given United's vulnerability and lack of focus in this sort of situation, it's a real threat that the Black-and-Red must deal with. In terms of size and athleticism, it shouldn't be a problem, but any team with guys like Torres lurking around the box is a threat on set pieces. Ideally, United will attack the ball and win the initial header rather than passively letting it drop, as Seattle did several times.
As I mentioned, Chivas starts games very well. It's of the utmost importance that United - especially without Dwayne De Rosario, who like it or not is either our most or second-most creative player - starts well and gets through the opening stages without falling behind. Plenty of teams have come back on Chivas, but those teams probably have a guy with four or more goals on their team.
For United, the approach shouldn't be about surviving the onslaught; Chivas doesn't really throw the kitchen sink at you so much as they just don't spend any time feeling the game out. Los Capitalinos need to start the game by keeping possession and making Chivas do some chasing. The idea is to dictate to Chivas that this game will be about United having control of the ball and leaving the Goats to choose between hunkering down and hanging on or staying open and getting sliced up. Chivas doesn't have the discipline to shut a team down over 90 minutes, and they tend to run out of gas in the second half, so a calm possession game will double as a way to shield our defense and keep the Goats off the scoreboard.
More from Black And Red United:
- Chivas USA vs. D.C. United Preview: Behind Enemy Lines with The Goat Parade
- Chivas USA vs. D.C. United Preview: When last we met... the Black-and-Red playoff push continued apace
- D.C. United vs. Chivas USA lineup: Will the Canadian absences help Ben Olsen?
- Filibuster Podcast - Week 27: New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA, and USA vs. Costa Rica