Editor's note: ESPNsoccernet will preview all 12 MLS teams as they prepare for the 2006 season.
Key additions: D Claudio Suarez, F Ante Razov, M Jesse Marsch, D Carlos Llamosa, M Sacha Kljestan, D Jonathan Bornstein, D Lawson Vaughn, GK Preston Burpo.
Key losses: D Douglas Sequeira, M Hector Cuadros, F Isaac Romo, D/M Francisco Gomez.
Key questions facing the team:
1. Will the rebuilt defense be good enough?
Bob Bradley's first task as head coach was rebuilding a defense that allowed a league-worst 67 goals in 2005. The first part of the reconstruction was the arrival of Mexican national team legend Claudio Suarez. The 37-year-old central defender provides a wealth of experience and still has a high enough skill level to anchor a back line that will boast a completely new set of starters.
As if Suarez didn't provide enough experience, Bradley brought in longtime MLS defender Carlos Llamosa, who is showing flashes of returning to the form that made him a U.S. national team defender just four years ago. As good as he has looked, Llamosa is still a 36-year-old defender coming off of a year hiatus. Will Suarez and Llamosa be able to contain the speedy strikers in the Western Conference?
As experienced as the central defense is, the fullbacks could be a pair of unproven rookies. Jonathan Bornstein was an attacking player at UCLA but is quickly emerging as a quality option at left back, pushing veteran Orlando Perez for the starting role. Lawson Vaughn was a supplemental draft selection but has shown the athleticism and passing ability to be a solid right back.
2. Does Ante Razov have another big season left?
When the MetroStars basically gave up on Razov by dealing him to Chivas USA for a partial allocation, some wondered whether the Metros knew something others didn't. It appears that Chivas might have been the club that knew something.
Razov has shown up in his native Southern California in superb shape and looks primed to have a monster year playing alongside Mexican star Francisco Palencia. The fourth-leading goal scorer in MLS history, Razov was effective for the Metros in the first half of the 2005 season before sports hernia surgery sidelined him and a quick return from the surgery limited his ability late in the year. His hat trick in a preseason game against Chicago last week could be just a glimpse of what Razov delivers this season. Why should we expect double-digit goals from Razov? He's healthy, he's playing for Bradley again, he's playing in his hometown and, perhaps most importantly, Razov is playing for what could be the last big contract of his career.
3. Is Brad Guzan for real?
One of the few bright spots of the 2005 season was the gutsy effort of Guzan, who won fans over with his acrobatic saves and unrelenting effort playing behind an embarrassing defense. Guzan certainly did enough start drawing the label of next great MLS goalkeeper, but is he really ready? He has the tools and attitude to be special, but the fact remains he is a 21-year-old goalkeeper who probably played more than he needed to last season. Enter Preston Burpo, an A-League veteran who won a championship with the Seattle Sounders last season. The 33-year-old goalkeeper has looked solid in the preseason and could push Guzan for the starting role and at the very least keep Guzan from resting on his laurels.
Biggest X-Factor: Jesse Marsch
The longtime Chicago Fire midfielder is at the tail end of his career but Marsch is still a tenacious ball-winner with underrated passing skills who provides a solid presence in the locker room.
Chivas USA lacked a bulldog-type in its midfield last season, which only magnified the team?s defensive shortcomings. Marsch's work rate and willingness to deliver the tough tackle should help playmaker Juan Pablo Garcia focus on setting up the strikers. Another player that could make a considerable impact, if he plays, is Ramon Ramirez. The veteran midfielder is out with a knee injury, and he is 36 years old, but Ramirez is still supremely skilled and capable of contributing. Bradley brought Ramirez back for a reason and you can bet the former Mexican national team star is eager to erase last year's disappointment.
Breakout Player to Watch: Sacha Kljestan
Chivas USA was roundly criticized for its draft-day trade that sent the No. 1 overall pick to the Red Bulls for the No. 5 pick and Jason Hernandez. While top pick Marvell Wynne has struggled to make an early impact for the Red Bulls, Kljestan, the No. 5 selection, looks like he could pay immediate dividends.
The Seton Hall midfielder was considered the top midfielder in the draft and is living up to that billing with his vision and passing ability. He has worked his way into the starting lineup and could team with Garcia and Marsch in a central midfield capable of generating a considerable amount of scoring chances.
|Eric Wynalda's Take:|
|"Bringing in Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov were the two big ones. I think they're also trying to put together a better defense in front of Guzan, who's a talented goalkeeper, it's just that he was really thrown into the fire last season. Bradley's worked the system already to make some moves. He's going to have a pretty good team. I think it's going to be a little better than people suspect. It's not going to be the same old, lose more than they win. I think they'll definitely come in over .500 this year."|
The Goats suffered from an overmatched defense and disorganized midfield last season, along with the late arrival of the stars that were supposed to carry the franchise. Now that Chivas has Palencia and Garcia from the start of the season, and Suarez has arrived to anchor the defense, Chivas suddenly doesn't look like the league's punching bag.
The forward tandem of Palencia and Razov could be one of the best in MLS, but does the team have enough cover for them? Garcia can play up front but is better suited in the midfield.
The biggest concern is still on defense, only it isn't the quality of the back line. Suarez and Llamosa are 37 and 36 respectively, making depth a serious concern. Who is the team's next center back option? Would it be Ezra Hendrickson or Hernandez? Whoever it is, Chivas would be in serious trouble if either veteran gets injured.
So how much better will Chivas be in 2006? The Goats have the pieces to secure a Western Conference playoff berth and could finish as high as third in the West if they stay healthy and Razov regains his scoring touch. What's the worst-case scenario? Suarez gets hurt, Llamosa retires and Chivas finds itself on the wrong end of high-scoring games for the second straight season.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.