Chivas' slow start: Championship hangover or full-blown crisis?
MEXICO CITY -- It's hard to believe the following stat is true of any current champion around the world: in their last 15 league games, Chivas has won just two.
There's no escaping the truth in Guadalajara, however, where Matias Almeyda's club has gotten off to a slow start in the Apertura 2017 after famously winning the team's 12th championship in May. To the team's credit, both of the cited wins came in the toughest of spots. The first, a 1-0 win over Atlas in the quarterfinals of last season's playoffs to keep their run going and see off their local foes.
The second win, of course, came two weeks later in the final, against a heavily favored Tigres club. Titles live longer in the memory than simple streaks, which is why there's no alarm sounding in Jorge Vergara's office right now. The team's owner has been famously quick-triggered when it comes to hiring and firing coaches, but his patience with Almeyda has definitely been rewarded. The current staff boasts a league title; two Copa MX championships and a Supercopa MX win so far.
With little pressure to speak of, Chivas will have time to turn it around after starting the current season with three draws and a 4-1 loss against Monterrey last weekend. However, there are issues beyond form that will take creative solutions to overcome as we deepen into the current campaign.
To begin with, many of Guadalajara's players are suffering from fatigue brought on by the national team and thus, a lack of serious preseason preparation with their club side. Eight players were called up for either the Confederations Cup or the Gold Cup this summer, six of them regular starters for the "Goats". A key piece of last season's championship group, striker Alan Pulido, is likely lost for the entire tournament after he sustained a broken bone in his right arm with Mexico in a pre-Gold Cup friendly against Paraguay.
The possibility that Chivas' young stars could also receive interest from European sides in the present and short-term future is also a matter of preoccupation. Orbelin Pineda and Rodolfo Pizarro, for instance, have already garnered looks, a fact their coach is aware of. "I'm preparing for the day I don't have Orbelin here," Almeyda recently told La Afición. "[My players] will give their all for Chivas and then, at the World Cup. Surely when they return they'll have offers."
Despite this eventuality, ownership decided not to pursue transfer targets in the summer, relying instead on their depth and deep youth setup to cover any potential needs. This means Pulido has been replaced in the lineup by Angel Zaldivar, a 24-year-old forward with 14 goals to his name in 80 career league appearances.
However large the hole created by Pulido's absence on offense, Chivas' struggles on defense have been even more alarming. Under Almeyda, the team conceded only 18 goals in 17 regular season games last season, with the team keeping seven clean sheets in the aforementioned span. This season, they've given up seven goals already in just four games, with severe lapses the norm both individually and as a group.
The Goats' slow start could also fall under the auspices of a common trait for defending titleholders in Mexico, known as "campeonitis." For instance, take Tigres, the Apertura 2016 titleholders. Upon the start of the Clausura 2017, the Monterrey side won just two of their first eight, before embarking on a blistering late-season run that put them into the playoffs and eventually, the final.
That Tigres side also suffered from a lack of preseason matches brought on by the Apertura's awkward scheduling, which held the second leg of the league final on Christmas Day due to their opponent, Club America, embarking on the FIFA Club World Cup earlier in the month.
Which is to say there's still a very large chance Chivas will rebound from their current funk and push towards a solid defense of their league title. Their next two opponents in the league, Puebla and Santos Laguna, have also not won in the Apertura 2017, and both teams have had even worse defensive struggles than Guadalajara, giving up a combined 16 goals between them.
"We're not on the ground right now," said Almeyda after their loss to Monterrey last weekend. "We have to find a balance, correct our mistakes and pick ourselves up as we've done before. I have faith we'll move forward."
The scenario expecting Chivas to roll into their Matchday 7 showdown with Queretaro with two straight wins is thus, not a difficult one to foresee. If, however, the wins fail to come, the ugly stat mentioned at the beginning will grow to be much more uncomfortable, and perhaps even untenable.
After all, even fans would be hard pressed to recall when Chivas' last regular season win occurred. It was April 8, a full four months ago.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.