Today's entry in our series about Chivas USA players in 2011 is Zach Thornton. The veteran goalkeeper started the first two games of the season before being replaced by Dan Kennedy, who went on to have an outstanding season. It seemed clear from the get-go this year that Kennedy was expected to be the starter once he became fully healthy, a plan in the making for the past couple of seasons. Until the third game this season, however, Kennedy suffered from a series of injuries that limited his time between the sticks, and fortunately Thornton was available to pick up the slack. Plus, Thornton is not far removed from plaudits himself, as he earned his second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2009 with the Goats. Indeed, it seems in the short history of Chivas, goalkeeper has unquestionably been the strongest position from year to year on the team.
Still, Thornton is getting up there in age, even by goalkeeper standards. At 38, he isn't necessarily on his way to retirement, but surely his career is nearing its end. Before we think about his future, let's take a look at his performances this season.With two appearances for Thornton this season, it is pretty easy to look at them in some depth.The first match was the season opener, when Chivas hosted Sporting Kansas City on March 19. The game ended in a 3-2 loss for the Goats, and both teams seemed to not have established defenses yet. Since each squad had considerable turnover, that's not a surprise. While Chivas' defense did not do Thornton any favors, he was slow to react to KC's first goal, a tightly angled shot on a botched clearance by CJ Sapong, and he failed to commit fully on coming out to the second goal, by Omar Bravo, who ended up chipping Thornton as he was stuck in no-man's land. He wasn't as much at fault on KC's winning goal, also by Bravo, who escaped from the defense on a jailbreak and beat Thornton, who couldn't have been expected to stop a shot at such a close distance. All things considered, Thornton didn't have a great game, but he didn't produce a howler to lose Chivas the points either.
A similar situation took place in the second match for Thornton, which was against the Colorado Rapids on March 26. Chivas lost the game 1-0 on a first half goal by Quincy Amarikwa. The goal came when Amarikwa broke through a failed offside trap, with the Chivas defense playing a very high line. From there, Amarikwa was off to the races, and Thornton had a choice to either stay in goal and take his chances with a shot, or come rushing out to smother a chance. He chose the latter, but it didn't work, as Amerikwa avoided him and shot around him, scoring rather easily. Again, the goal came about in part because of the faulty defense and perhaps in part because of Thornton's decision to run out of goal.
In the end, Thornton's statistics on the season were not good, although obviously with such a small sample size it is not really fair to take much on the basis of two games. He had three saves and allowed four goals on the season, and lost both matches. I think the key question is if Kennedy would have performed better if he played those matches. While defensive breakdowns were a key problem for Chivas this season, they actually held together well through April and May. Still, I don't think the defense looked cohesive in the first two matches, and they gave up one too many goalscoring chances. Perhaps Kennedy could have gotten a point in one of those matches, but I don't think Thornton was the main culprit.
Still, given Kennedy's outstanding season, if he continues to stay healthy, Thornton will no longer be a starting keeper for Chivas. His age and his salary are concerns moving forward. I'm not sure what his contract situation is, but this season, he was paid a guaranteed salary of $162,500. He has played in MLS since 1996 and been a successful keeper, so he has earned a relatively high salary, but that's far more than Kennedy, who had a guaranteed salary of $62,496 this season. Obviously, the starter should make more than the back-up, and since Chivas are not known to splash the cash, perhaps Thornton's current salary needs to be lowered or removed from the club payroll altogether.
Again, I still think Thornton has a place in MLS in 2012, if he wants it. For Chivas, he is no better than a back up, and with Sergio Arias waiting in the wings for a chance of his own, it might be the time for Thornton to move on. Obviously, it could be a risky move, as an injury to Kennedy would leave Arias as a totally untested replacement, but it may make sense from a financial, as well as personnel, perspective to cut ties. Whatever the case, it was a quiet season for Thornton, but full credit to him for being an exemplary professional while backing up Kennedy for most of 2011.