Eight games in to MLS and as usual you have a few surprises. D.C. and Toronto on top of the East while Columbus is in the basement. Houston’s slow start and the surprising Seattle Sounders in the West. But most puzzling are the strange cases of Chivas USA and the Chicago Fire.
Chivas, the less-glamorous but more effective LA team, is 7-1-1 with a commanding lead atop the West. This from a squad appraised in the pre-season as mediocre at best. So how has this happened? Well, five of those games are against Dallas (twice), the Galaxy, Colorado, and Columbus – teams which are turning out to be pretty poor. They’ve only played two Eastern Conference teams, and they’ve had six home games. That’s helpful, but it’s not the whole story.
Start with Zach Thornton. Many had written him off as past the sell-by date, but big Zach has come in leaner (for him) and has shown some of the agility that made him an all-star with the Fire. Chivas have also benefited from timely goals from a variety of players. Especially helpful when some of their most talented players either haven’t played much or played well (see Kljestan S., and Galindo, M.).
But the real key is probably the coaching and style of play instilled by Preki. One of our favorite soccer bloggers often refers to Chivas as the Cobra-Kai Dojo, and it’s an apt comparison. The Chivas strategy seems to include a lot of hacking and leg-sweeping, specifically targeting the opponent’s quickest or most skillful players, and packing the box if they can get the first goal. It’s pretty negative soccer, but you see it in every league out there. The strategy has worked well for Chivas this year due to those opportunistic goals and the fact that MLS isn’t loaded with creative offensive-minded players. This means if you can hack two or three guys into submission, you have a pretty good chance. Of course other teams also employ this tactic to good effect – Houston and New England come to mind – but Preki seems to have figured out a way to get his entire team to embrace the philosophy.
It’s highly ironic, because when Preki played, he was the guy you’d send the hatchet man after; he was the guy who would beat you with a moment of swaschbuckling brilliance. Maybe Preki took to heart how effective this approach could be after years of facing similar treatment. Unfortunately, other teams will copy this model, and until MLS refs show more moxy calling fouls, it will continue. Chivas has not been nearly so dominant as their record indicates – though they have been disciplined and fortunate. They should start to fall back with summer and more eastern trips coming on.
On the other hand you have the Chicago Fire, 2-0-6. No losses and third in the East, but most of those ties (now five straight) could’ve and probably should’ve been wins. Chicago has shown an alarming propensity to leak goals late; this from a defense thought to be solid and sound. This from a team with the talent to win the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup. The Fire are sort of the anti-Chivas; they don’t seem to have the ability to shut down and play the counter after taking the lead. And there are other factors…
Start with the two centerbacks, Wilman Conde and Bakary Soumare: My analogy for Conde is former Indiana Pacer, Chuck ‘Rifleman’ Person, who when on was All-World, and when off was just not very good. The same with Conde, a great athlete with size and great ball skills, who just doesn’t seem to have the mental focus and decision making at this point. If he’s on his game, you’d put him on the field against anyone, but he also has a tendency to gamble and just sort of wander. Soumare seems so smooth at times, yet it’s only his third year in the league. He too seems to drift in and out. With these two in the middle, and with left back Gonzalo Segares battling injuries, the backline has often appeared adrift. Jon Busch is a goalkeeper capable of spectacular saves, but he’s undersized and has cost at least one game through his blunders.
The other aspect has been an inability by the offense to get that second goal to knock a team out. Again, with names like McBride, Blanco, and Rolfe, out there you might expect better. But Blanco is slowing down and no longer seems capable of the full 90, and Coach Hamlett has been content to bring Rolfe off the bench. You sometimes get the sense the Fire are waiting around for Blanco or McBride to just do something, and that’s when they start to look complacent.
The good news is, the talent is there and Chicago can look very fluid and dangerous at times. You do start to wonder about strategy, approach to the game, and how all these lost leads will affect the younger guys in coming months. And what does all this say about the coaching staff? Hopefully the veteran players can help the team move past these lapses.
It can’t be easy to deal with a guy like Blanco as he slows down, especially with so many of the younger guys showing promise. And yet #10 can still change the game at any moment, and he is very good for about 70 minutes. Maybe Hamlett figures out the right blend and the defense recovers some spine. Maybe they adopt a little of Sensei Preki’s whack-a-mole philosophy (though I hope not). Whatever the case, the clock is definitely ticking on this version of the Fire. And it could be worse – just look at the Crew or the Galaxy…