The season is here upon us! Although most Southern Californians don't experience snow, imagine we are all emerging from our winter hibernation. The sun is shining perhaps a little brighter, the birds are chirping for the first time in months, the ground is (metaphorically) thawed, and soccer is here.
This is the moment of the season when everything is ahead of us. The players are (mostly) healthy. Optimism is hitting a high water mark. The sense of the unexpected is exciting, rather than inevitable. It is all in play here. The world is our oyster.
Ok, maybe it is just the 2013 MLS regular season, but you know what I'm talking about, right? Win, lose, or draw, the Goats are back for real, and it is time to see what this year's group can do. A new team, a new coach, a new front office, a more-or-less new owner. This is the first test.
Chivas USA host the Columbus Crew in the first game of the season Saturday evening (7:30 pm PT, MLS Live). How will the new-look Chivas team look? We'll find out very soon. First, let's preview the match!
Tale of the Tape:
First match of the season for both teams, so they are equally winless and undefeated.
Key Match-up: Chivas' defense vs. Columbus' attack
Yeah, we're back here, but the team has to start from a relatively elementary position. Can we take for granted that Chivas will score enough goals this season? Not necessarily. But can we expect them to be as awful as they were last year? Definitely not. At this point, I'm taking as a given that Chivas will return to at least mediocre levels on the attacking end, and that means the top concern has to be the defense. We expect Chelís to run a 3-man backline with two wingbacks to offer support. It works elsewhere, but can it prevent goals in MLS? Additionally, are Chivas' defenders up to snuff? Two, and perhaps all three of the starters will be newcomers to the league. Can they form an understanding fast enough to hit the ground running from the first game?
Factor in that Columbus is bringing back their main offensive weapons in Federico Higuain, Jairo Arrieta, and Eddie Gaven, and adding reinforcements like Dominic Oduro, whose finishing can be spotty but who can torch defenses with his speed, and Chivas will have a good challenge on their hands right away. Higuain will attempt to unlock Chivas' defense on through balls and set pieces, Arrieta and Gaven will crash the box, and Oduro will come in from the wing. I have to believe the Crew are going to try and throw as many bodies forward as they can to break down Chivas' defense without getting caught out themselves. I'm not sure if counterattacking will be their strength, but if an opportunity presents itself, they aren't going to sit idly by.
Why Chivas will win this match: The team is feeling legitimately good heading into the season. It may be a bit foolhardy, but you cannot deny they had a strong preseason, and even in the matches against MLS opposition, they looked strong, particularly against the Colorado Rapids. The Crew do not have the reputation of being a team caught unawares, and while they haven't always had the talent, they've always had the work ethic. Chivas are fit, feel good, and want to prove they can start the season off strong. Believe me, the motivation is there for each and every player, and they will want to prove the numerous haters wrong. That sense of belief and confidence can go a long way in securing a win to start the campaign. Plus, Columbus has never beaten Chivas in California, which can't hurt.
Why Columbus will win this match: Let's be real, though. Streaks like the one between Chivas and Columbus at the HDC are made to be broken. I don't get the sense that Columbus feels like they have any bad mojo hanging over their heads against the Goats, and with the massive upheaval in Chivatown this offseason, they have to believe they should have an edge entering the game. Higuain is being touted as an MVP candidate, they've also added center back Glauber to partner with the talented, albeit oft-injured Chad Marshall. They missed the playoffs last season by a single point, and will be keen to collect each and every one this season in order to avoid the same fate. Plus, this is being seen as a make-or-break year for coach Robert Warzycha. There is plenty of motivation on both sides, but Columbus frequently skates under the radar and will likely provide a much tougher test than most expect.
Why this game will end in a draw: Most notably, it's all about the keepers! Dan Kennedy emerged as one of the very best keepers in the league the last two seasons, and finally started getting his fair share of praise last season. Andy Gruenebaum was the "2011 Dan Kennedy" of 2012, in that it took folks quite a while to recognize his strong play. I think both teams will be rather unhappy if this turns out to be a goalkeeping battle, since they'll want to start the season off with a statement win, but the respective men between the posts could very well keep their sides in the match, and it could lead to a stalemate.
Chivas: Jorge Villafana (ankle - listed as doubtful), Juan Agudelo (foot - listed as probable)
Columbus: None listed