Chivas USA failed to score for the fourth straight week, despite some good options they created during the game. But, at least, CUSA was able to grab a point and a shutout following a scoreless draw against Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday.
Some changes coach Wilmer Cabrera has made with CUSA's starting lineup and another big performance by netminder Dan Kennedy set the difference between this game and the usual Chivas USA's defensive effort we have highlighted in previous columns this season. The first, notable change that made an impact on the team's backline was the decision Cabrera made to start Akira Kaji at right-back. The Japanese-born footballer was impressive over there, displaying good composure and a generally positive performance. The 34-year old defender netted four tackles and, even if his passing accuracy leaves something to be desired, at a mere 64 percent, the overall performance gave Chivas USA's fans hope to have finally found an answer for the right-back woes.
With Kaji starting in the place of Eric Avila or of any other right-back Cabrera utilized in the first part of the season, CUSA enjoyed some continuity at the position while the Japanese defender has provided good performances in recent weeks, despite the team's losses. In Kaji, Cabrera has an overlapping full back, one suited to push forward up and down the line but still get some needed defensive stability. And stability is pretty much always a good thing.
About Kennedy, the goalkeeper once again confirmed to be one of MLS' best No. 1. He showed it cranking out a pair of big saves while continuing to lead the backline with his experience and vocal presence. Some fans have recently questioned his aggressive attitude, in particular pointing the finger against his play well off his line.
But a more insightful look into Kennedy's style tell us that his is a tactical trend due to different situations he faces during the games. While German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer popularized this style, or rather emphasized it during the recent 2014 World Cup held in Brazil, this keepers' attitude of aggression isn't new. Other GKs made it popular throughout the last season, with the likes of Dutch 'keeper Michel Vorm playing a sweeper-keeper role with Swansea in the EPL, surprising many in the process. Another is Hugo Lloris at Tottenham Hotspur, as he has been one of the latest examples of a keeper acting quickly in coming out from the posts behind his defense.
By the way, there is a key difference between the way Kennedy and Neuer/Vorm perform this role. In fact, while Neuer and Vorm run or ran this way due to a precise tactical choice, Kennedy's display is more a consequence of the high backline Cabrera likes to play in the game. The German squad was built to keep possession of the ball, trying to pass the ball from the back, and no player is farther back than the 'keeper.
Although it could appear foolish, there is nothing strange here for a team whose philosophy starts with the ball. As keeping possession became a key of modern football, having a "sweeper-keeper" assumed greater significance. Surely, there is still the chance to concede easy goals by losing possession near the goalkeeper's own penalty box. But every tactic has its risks and rewards and this is the same here. As pointed earlier, Kennedy's display is more the consequence of a high defensive line rather than keeping possession, so his aggression is due to needing to make good saves rather than goalkeeper's distribution for CUSA's head coach. Chivas USA are playing a high line so Kennedy is looking more as a high playing goalie than a classic sweeper-keeper.
However that may be you have to be careful in using this tactic. Quick transitions, breaking the backline, can potentially leave forwards in a 1-to-1 situation against the 'keeper, a scenario seen countless times with Kennedy over the years. It frequently happens as the high line is vulnerable to through balls. And it happened against Vancouver too when, with the Goats pushing forward trying to earn the three points, Kennedy was able to nullify some good counter-attacks. It is not easy to find a good high quality keeper so Kennedy must stay at Chivas USA. Whatever will be Chivas USA's future, the team must restart with its longstanding centerpiece.
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