With the 2012 MLS season nearly upon us, I thought it would be good to go through some of the key questions for Chivas USA. With Juan Pablo Angel's re-signing announced yesterday, perhaps the biggest question hanging over the club heading into the season has been answered. But as always know for a club looking to make a leap up the table, there are more questions where that came from. Let's see what's burning as we get to First Kick.
1. Will Chivas' defense be better in 2012?
With the terrible skid to end the season (largely corresponding to Heath Pearce's hamstring injury), it might be hard to remember that Chivas had a solid defense for most of the middle of the 2011 season. Despite it being seemingly constructed out of bubble gum and paper clips, the backline was often worrisome but generally solid for about half of the season. The problem was the rest of the time, when Chivas either let in late goals to lose points or gave up goals early in matches and left the offense with an impossible task. If Chivas are serious about getting to the playoffs this season, the defense must play better, period.The 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend at the Portland Timbers Tournament to end their preseason left many to believe that the same old Chivas defense would be in place for 2012. As ever, I do not take preseason results seriously, but am I afraid based on that result? Of course. It seems that even at the best of times, Chivas will field a defense that will scare the bejesus out of fans, and their approach will be very much a bend-but-don't-break strategy. It's going to be a bumpy ride, I expect. I just hope the highs heavily outweigh the lows for the defense.
What am I expecting from newcomers James Riley and John Valencia? Experience and stability. If both players can slot in and work well with returning defenders Heath Pearce and Ante Jazic, Chivas' chances will improve substantially. And the team may have depth at it's disposal in defense - but we'll have to see what happens on the field before making a definitive call. Plus, I won't be surprised in the least if Robin Fraser plays two defensive midfielders at once to start the season, and based on the San Jose game, it seems warranted.
2. Where will the goals come from this season?
Justin Braun's gone. Marcos Mondaini's gone. Alejandro Moreno may play in the midfield. Nick LaBrocca slumped offensively after the All-Star Break last year. JPA is back, however, and he will be expected to take the burden on, and he and Moreno provide loads of MLS experience. Now, will Casey Townsend, Cesar Romero and Miller Bolanos be up to the task in their first MLS season? If they can, this team will be all the better.
Also, don't forget the two players who seemed to have the best preseason of all: Ryan Smith and Michael Lahoud. The pair seems energized by a new team and new position, respectively, and it seems Chivas will be able to play out wide much more effectively this year. I think both guys will be counted on for multiple goals and assists each in 2012. Plus, LaBrocca and Ben Zemanski have shown that they can pop up for timely goals, so while there are considerable questions marks regarding the readiness of many of these players, I have to say I am not as concerned about the offense as I am the defense.
3. Can Chivas get important results early in the season?
Last year, Chivas had to play catch-up after opening the season very poorly. Think back to that part of the season - it was unclear if Chivas would even get out of the basement. But they slowly got a run of draws together before finally winning, and by that time the team was starting to click. With Fraser back for another season, can the team get going from First Kick?
By no means are these matches going to be easy, but Chivas have a fairly favorable schedule to start 2012. At the very least, Chivas should have a decent chance of getting a result in nearly all of them. Starting the season against Houston will be a decent start to the season, since they split the season series last year (but won at home against the Dynamo 3-0) and the Dynamo were the consummate roller-coaster team in 2011. Will they be more like the team that lost to Chivas at the HDC or more like the defending Eastern Conference champions? That question will be answered Sunday.
Still, unless Chivas look totally hopeless against the Dynamo, they will follow that game up six days later with a game at home to Vancouver - a team expected to be much improved but a team that Chivas still need to get results against if they have any hope of moving up the table. Then, they have consecutive games against Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, which will both be tough games for the Goats, although Chivas nearly beat SKC last season on the road. Following those games, they will play the Timbers up in Portland and Toronto FC on the road - also not easy matches but games Chivas will need to at least get draws in order to stay competitive in a stacked Western Conference.
If they start the season great, will their playoff chances be assured? Of course not. But if they stumble, their chances won't be shot, either (unless they happen to lose all of those opening six matches - they'll be far from out of it, but morale will likely pull the team down). Still, if Chivas want to set the tone for the season, they will need to pick up points early, against teams that are generally in the same range as them.
4. Can Dan Kennedy replicate his 2011 form this season?
I thought Kennedy was the secret to the success that Chivas had in 2011 - without him, it would have been much worse. I thought he played so well that he deserved goalkeeper of the year AND a look by the U.S. Men's National Team. Does that make me a homer? Perhaps, but Kennedy had an outstanding season in 2011. Will he be able to stay at the same level in 2012? That is a key question, especially considering the fears of the defense's ability to prevent goals. I can't really predict what his form will be, but I feel pretty confident that he will be an elite goalkeeper this season. Otherwise, the playoff push will become infinitely more difficult.
5. Will Chivas sign their first Designated Player in 2012?
The magic 8 ball says: "Signs say no."
Put another way, the chance Chivas will get their own DP: 0.0003%. Don't hold your breath.
6. Who will be the team MVP at season's end?
Who knows? That mantle is pretty much wide open. Let's say it like this: unless one player has a transcendent and brilliant season, the best in club history, the season will be good if there are multiple candidates for MVP at season's end. If we look back and say, "Yeah, that guy played less worse than everybody else," it will be a long season indeed. Who would you predict?
What do you think? Leave a comment below!