Continuing our series this week on Chivas USA at the approximate midpoint of the season, today we grade the defenders. Unlike the high grade given to Dan Kennedy yesterday, the defense is going to have more of a variety. The general narrative for the back line so far this season goes something like this: Chivas got off to a slow start, but clicked from April to mid-May. During that stretch, they were an excellent defense, and Robin Fraser's experience as a defender seemed to rub off on his players. But from the match in Columbus in May, Chivas defense struggled mightily, and since then, they have lost 12 points from losing leads in multiple games. The last few weeks, the Goats look like they are possibly back on track, and perhaps the shaky stretch is behind them.
Collectively, Chivas are currently tied for 8th place on goal difference, and tied for 9th in goals allowed. So in basic terms, as a unit Chivas are right in the middle of the pack, but at least they are in the top half. As I mentioned yesterday, Dan Kennedy really seems to have established himself as a Top 10 goalkeeper this season (in a league where quality goalkeepers are abundant), so it looks like his backline statistically is holding serve for him.
Again, a reminder of Chivas record at the moment: 19 MLS games (1 U.S. Open Cup Qualifier): 22 points (5-7-7) (0-1-0 in USOC); 6th in Western Conference, 10th place overall.
Look at the individual evaluations after the jump.Heath Pearce: Without question, he is the MVP of Chivas defense. Obtained from FC Dallas in the offseason, Pearce was brought in to bring experience and skill to the Goats, and he has delivered that and then some. With Jimmy Conrad missing most of the season, Pearce has assumed most of the leadership burden for the backline, has captained the squad from time to time, and has set up goals (he has three assists). Pearce also shifted from right back to center back, for the first time in his professional career, and the transition has been seamless. Fraser obviously trusts Pearce, as he has played every minute so far this season, and Pearce has been a fan favorite, what with his mustache-growing prowess. If Chivas are going to make a serious playoff push, he will need to keep doing what he's doing in the second half.
Pearce's midseason grade: A-
Zarek Valentin: They say opposites attract, and Valentin has been a good compliment to Pearce this year. The rookie came into the league with high expectations, but it is always nervy to watch a young defender get his seasoning. So far, all signs point to Valentin playing beyond initial expectations. The only major mistake he's made was the one last weekend against Sporting Kansas City, where his poor clearance looped towards goal and onto Omar Bravo's head. But besides that, he has been really strong, and is adjusting very well. Fraser clearly trusts him, as he has started 15 matches and played in 16 (he missed a few while on international duty with the U.S. U-20 squad), and Pearce in particular has taken Valentin under his wing, on and off the field. It bodes well for the future of this team. If there is something Valentin could work on moving forward, it would be that he could stand to put some muscle on his frame, but as he is still a teenager this may sort itself out over time. Additionally, it would be nice to see him get involved in the future in the attack on occasion, as he is an outside back. But at this point, we'd rather take a stay at home defender who makes few mistakes to one who scores and concedes goals alike.
Valentin's midseason grade: B+
Ante Jazic: The veteran from Canada has also been steady for the Goats so far. He has started 14 matches, and played quite well, although injuries have slowed him a bit lately. He has chipped in 3 assists, and his assist in the New England game was a highlight of his season. Jazic is the type of player who draws little attention to himself, and his experience, both in the league and on Chivas for the last few years undoubtedly has helped the transition to the Fraser era. Perhaps the biggest concern for him moving forward is his durability. At 35, he may need more rest than some of the other guys, and it may have played a part in picking up his calf injury. It will be interesting to see if Fraser inserts him back into the lineup or continues with Michael Lahoud, who has played pretty well the past three games. But even if he isn't slotted back in immediately, his presence will provide depth for Chivas' defensive corps.
Jazic's midseason grade: B
Andrew Boyens: This is probably the player I have been most confused about this season. He started the season off strong, and except his brief performance in the nightmare Real Salt Lake match, where he got two yellow cards within the first half hour (and that was before Marcos Mondaini broke Javier Morales' ankle) he has played really well in the center of defense, and even scored a goal. Then, he went off on national duty with New Zealand, and he hasn't played much since. Fraser seems to prefer Michael Umana to Boyens, and I think a lot of Chivas fans have been puzzled by that, as Boyens looks to be a better defender. Perhaps behind the scenes there is more reason for his benching? That may be the answer to this riddle.
Boyens' midseason grade: B
Michael Lahoud: He is still classified by the league as a midfielder, but Lahoud is a defender now, as he plays full back 90% of the time. Coming into the season, it was unclear if he would be seeing much playing time, but he has, especially when other defenders were out with injury and international call-ups. For the most part, he has taken advantage of his opportunity, and as I mentioned with Jazic, Lahoud may have played his way into the starting lineup. One advantage to his game is that he tries to join in the attack more than the other full backs, and he has a goal and an assist to show for his efforts in 12 games. Unfortunately, he will be remembered for scoring the late equalizer against FC Dallas, and then gifting the even later winner minutes later. I think he can still be caught out of position sometimes, and will scramble, but on the whole, he has improved as a defender so far this season, and that's a good sign for the Goats.
Lahoud's midseason grade: B-
Michael Umana: He's been the scapegoat for Chivas' defensive slide, and as his appearances coincided with the team's inability to hold leads, it seemed justified. Although he is a veteran of the team, and was a starter last season, Boyens seems like an upgrade. But Fraser either sees something in the two players that the rest of us don't, or there is some non-soccer reason for Umana's inclusion. It is a mystery. But maybe there is reason to believe he isn't as bad as we make him out to be. Chivas have played better the last two games, and he was on the field for those. To be speaking with our guts, we would say he is being helped more by teammates, especially regarding his lack of pace, but to be kind, we would say that maybe the slide and his insertion in the lineup was a coincidence? Maybe the second half of the season can shed more light on the situation.
Umana's midseason grade: C-
Mariano Trujillo: He's definitely been the odd man out in the first half, playing in only 7 matches, and starting none. His advancing age (34) means he probably is around mainly for squad depth, and his game-winning goal in the first match against San Jose provided Chivas their first win of the season, so he has contributed in his limited time. At this point, however, assessing a grade is not really fair.
Trujillo's midseason grade: Incomplete
Jimmy Conrad: Coming into the season, Conrad was the player Fraser was going to build the defense around, and he was the captain who was going to help Chivas expand their fanbase. Unfortunately, his concussion against Colorado (the 2nd game of the season) has knocked him out for nearly all of the season. He has tried to come back on a couple of occasions, but obviously it doesn't look like he will get back to his old pace, either this season, or perhaps at all. Coming in the wake of the early retirements for Taylor Twellman and Alecko Eskandarian for multiple concussions, it sadly appears that Conrad may be headed down that path in the very near future. But his wife recently had a daughter, and a man with a young family needs to think about his priorities. Although it is difficult to leave the sport you love while you feel you have something to give, preventing further head injuries will improve Conrad's chances at living a long and productive life after soccer. But just because he may not be able to play doesn't mean he can't be involved: last week, Conrad traveled with the team and served as an assistant coach. It may be a one-off, or it may be the start of a transition for Conrad. Either way, we hope he recovers soon.
Conrad's midseason grade: Incomplete
What do you think? Leave a comment and sound off