In the Robin Fraser era, it could be argued that Chivas USA suffered from a lack of aggression. Sure, the team struggled to score and often take initiative in the final third, but they also seemed to have a lack of players willing to get a bit scrappy, to make games difficult for opponents, something that was certainly present during Preki's time in charge of the club.
And while most fans would probably prefer to see a team playing beautiful attacking soccer rather than a brand of physical, gritty ball, I also think most fans would prefer to see wins at any cost than losing attempts to play with flair. Can teams combine the two approaches? Certainly, with Sporting Kansas City being a good example of the combination in MLS. But on the whole, teams must prioritize one style over the other.
In 2013, it is safe to say that Chivas USA swung too far in the other direction and were far too aggressive, with not enough skill, to be effective. Starting with the siege mentality Chelís implemented, the Goats fouled a lot, and then acquired yellow cards, red cards, and suspensions like they were going out of style. And this continued well after Jose Luis Real came aboard as coach, despite a commitment to re-establish on-field discipline. While the fouls and cards tapered off towards the end of the season, it still has to be argued that the aggressive play didn't really do the team any favors.
As a point of comparison, Chivas ranked second in the league in fouls committed in 2013, with 465 (Sporting KC had a whopping 511). They were second in yellow cards with 65 (SKC and Toronto FC shared the league lead with 67), and were tied for second in red cards with 8, along with the New England Revolution (the Seattle Sounders had 10 ejections). So besides Kansas City, Chivas were pretty clearly at the top of the heap regarding on-field sanctions.
Now, it is worth noting that if one looks at the context of each red card, one would find some that are more deserving than others. Eric Avila's red card? Not really warranted. Joaquin Velazquez's? That was actually overturned by MLS, as it was a blatant dive by Colin Clark to draw the ejection, despite no contact between the players.
Still, if Chivas didn't necessarily deserve all of those cards, they still had a lot of them.
I went through and tabulated the time that Chivas were down a man during the season. It added up to 274 minutes, which represents a shade under nine percent of the team's total minutes for the season. Nine percent! That's not insignificant, especially for a team that struggled even with all 11 players on the field. Now, ejections didn't necessarily mean losses, as the team went 1-4-2 in games in which a player saw a red card, but still, it wasn't a good trend.
Besides the ejections themselves, red cards carry with them a one-match ban, but there is also the threat of additional suspension. Four Chivas players were suspended in 2013, for a total of five games. Combining the red card suspension and MLS Disciplinary Committee suspensions, the Goats lost players for a total of 12 games over the course of the season due to indiscipline. The rate of games lost isn't as significant as the minutes lost due to red cards, but it still caused disruption in the team.
Following the double red card night against the Colorado Rapids August 11, which ended in a 1-1 draw (though Chivas led the match until the 80th minute, and were down two men when Martin Rivero scored the equalizer), Real spoke publicly about the need to stop the indiscipline, which seemed out of control following two inexcusable incidents. Gabriel Farfan's stomp on Shane O'Neill and Tristan Bowen spitting at Chris Klute capped off a stretch in which Chivas saw red four times in four matches, and the frankly dirty play by Farfan and Bowen gave the team an even bigger black eye. The duo was each suspended a game by the league for their conduct, but what might be more telling is that neither player started another match for the remainder of the season. And once those players were dealt with, there were no more red cards or suspensions on the season, indicating that perhaps the message got through the other players' heads, too.
The goal for a team should not be to avoid yellow cards and fouls at all costs. Fouls are a part of the game, and I've argued many times that one of the primary roles of most defensive midfielders is to disrupt the opponent's game, and strategic fouling and drawing cards is part of that job.
But teams need to be smart about discipline. Sporting Kansas City has the reputation of being both a team with a great deal of skill, and a team that can muck things up and even play dirty when they need to. They play on the edge quite a bit, but they can also play beautiful soccer. And most importantly of all, they get results.
If Chivas want to continue to foul strategically as a strategy to narrow the talent gulf with their opponents, that's fine, but they must be intelligent about it. Above all, for a team that is struggling to find an on-field identity, it takes discipline to be a winner, and in 2013, this team did not have that quality.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!