Chivas USA's Sacha Klejstan is also a key member of the U.S. U-23s. Photo: John Todd, isiphotos.com.
I don't believe in luck. I believe in timing. Sort of like when you walk away from the slots and the person that plays your machine just a moment after you've walked away hits it big. Or the piano falling from six floors up misses you by a few feet because you walked by just at the right moment. Lucky? No, timing.
The MLS scheduling gods have provided the San Jose Earthquakes with some fortuitous timing. Last week the Earthquakes visited a team that clearly is having some issues. Watching a frustrated Chicago Fire, one could just see the wheels coming off. Denis Hamlett may be losing the team.
Chivas is in the same boat. Chivas has been hit hard by injuries and, with the small senior roster numbers in MLS, this can be significant. Both members of the team's strike force, Alecko Eskandarian and Maykel Galindo, are out injured. Right back Alex Zotinca is injured, as was Swiss international Raphael Wicky last week. In each match, Preki has had to field a different line up.
Preki runs things his way, although he offers players two options: Take it or leave. It's sort of a benevolent dictatorship, with lots of ego flying around Home Depot Center most days. And after losing to the Seattle Sounders Tuesday night, he is surely not a happy man. Chuck in the "gifted" draw against New York last Saturday, where the Red Bull's Kevin Goldthwaite assisted on the Chivas equalizer, and you have the potential for a Saturday evening meltdown.
I think we'll see the following from Chivas: Brad Guzan in goal with some combination of Claudio Suarez/ Shavar Thomas/Bobby Burling at center back, Francisco Mendoza on the left (although Jonathan Bornstein used to be there), and um, Carey Talley or Jim Curtin or maybe Attiba Harris at right back! Each has played there this season. I think we'll see Talley. Paulo Nagamura comes off suspension and should be the holding midfielder, possibly joined by Jesse Marsch as a pair. Bornstein, Wicky and Sacha Kljestan are the choices in the middle but unless Marsch sits or Chivas plays with three in the back there isn't room for all of them. I would guess Preki goes with Nagamura, Marsch, Kljestan, and Wicky, if healthy, playing on the left. If Wicky can't go, Bornstein. Whew. Up top, Ante Razov and Justin Braun. This weekend's Chivas line up really is guess work.
Let's look at the guys we'll most likely see Saturday night. Guzan has been reading his own press clippings and for me has not played anywhere near the level of a keeper called in to our national team. After watching him give the finger waggle to a referees assistant in a U.S. national team match for a deserved hand ball call, I decided his britches have gotten a bit too big. Brad makes poor decisions coming off his line and this could play out well for San Jose. If Suarez plays center back, this is great news for the Quakes. He is too slow for that large field and I always wonder if there is pressure put on Preki to keep the Mexican legend in the starting eleven. One can look at their run last season and see that when Suarez was not in the line up, Chivas performed better. Talley at right back is sort of like Chris Klein of the Galaxy or, to make an even better comparison, Bobby Rhine at Dallas. All were converted from different positions and never really look comfortable in defense. Run at Talley! He'll end up giving a few dangerous free kicks away. Bobby Burling is tall and inexperienced. Shavar Thomas has the experience and while he is not fast, he does provide better cover than the other center back choices. Mendoza, another converted midfielder, has been at left back lately which sends me the message that the highly overrated Jonathon Bornstein has been found out. Mendoza is a good left mid, and can be very dangerous in the attack, so look for him to get forward from his new deep position.
Nagamura is the guy that breaks things up and does a good job of it. He tends to make some poor decisions with the ball, however. Marsch no longer has the wheels to chase and ends up fouling the opposition a lot. I hope Raphael Wicky is fit to play, as none of us has seen more than a few minutes from him this year. He has a great resume and I personally would love to see what is left in the tank. If he can't, we'll see Bornstein, which is good news for San Jose. Bornstein seems to run up and down the field getting little done. Count his giveaways. Granted, the pitch at the Home Depot center is big enough to have made him look effective in the past, but I just don't see how anyone could have rated him a great young player. On a small pitch he passes the ball to the wrong team every time!
Sacha Kljestan is class. He has improved so much in the last year and is clearly the Chivas danger man, especially now that Galindo is out. Kljestan seems to enjoy every minute out on the pitch and has the ability to run at defenders, pass through them, or shoot from distance. Razov we know a little about — streaky, left footed, and will shoot from anywhere. Thing is, he always seems to find the target when he connects. He is older but remains a threat and the Earthquakes would do well to keep an eye on him for the 70 or 80 minutes he's out there. Braun, I don't know much about. Big fellow, works hard, has a few goals, maybe like New England's Christman.
For the Earthquakes to continue their string of good timing (!) against struggling sides, they'll need to pay attention to Kljestan. Don't let him see much of the ball. Make it a miserable night for him. Maybe play him tough, with a few guys making sure he knows getting by will not come easy. Marsch and Nagamura will play very physical so San Jose might as well return the courtesy. Keep Razov away from the box. Easier said then done as he is a smart player. He is also easily frustrated so turn him around, force him to pass back and then follow as he only passes when he thinks he'll get it back! Be aware when Mendoza flies forward, and if joined by Bornstein look to counter into the huge space they leave. This is where San Jose's forwards must exploit those areas. Whichever defense Chivas trots out, look to run at them on the break. Chivas has struggled in what once was their best feature: possession. San Jose should look to transition quickly and take advantage of a Chivas miscue.
My keys for a result:
Shape. The pitch at Home Depot Center is huge and teams can easily get stretched. No more than four in attack, six in defense always.
Patience. Look to counter. One pass over the top can wreak havoc in the Chivas defense.
Set pieces, on both ends. Chivas will foul in dangerous areas — don't waste the opportunity.
This match will be physical — best to know that going in.
(Tim Hanley is a former assistant coach with the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy, and played for the NASL incarnation of the Earthquakes.)