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Nov 4, 2007

Chivas USA yet to solve playoff puzzle

CARSON, Calif. -- There's no doubt that these days Chivas USA can be considered a model expansion MLS franchise. After Chivas' struggled in its inaugural season of 2005, when the team finished last in the league, the franchise has reinvented itself and reached the playoffs the past two campaigns.

However, as much as Chivas' overall record has improved each year, MLS titles are still won in the postseason. A fact that's not lost on Chivas after a 0-0 draw against the Kansas City Wizards at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night resulted in a first-round playoff exit on aggregate score (1-0) for the Western Conference regular-season champs.

"We've gotten better every year," Chivas midfielder Francisco Mendoza said.

In defense of Chivas, the team suffered from crucial injuries to its two star forwards. Maykel Galindo was hindered with a painful hernia and restricted to appearing only in the second leg, while Ante Razov was sidelined with a sprained knee. Although Chivas created numerous chances in the first-round series versus the Wizards, it wasn't able to score.

Chivas coach Preki remained unbowed, pointing out that his squad had controlled possession throughout the series.

"[Kansas City] should feel very fortunate that they are in the playoffs and they should feel fortunate that they beat us tonight," said Preki, who maintained that his squad had proved to be the better team.

Kansas City's Kerry Zavagnin didn't mind handing over the moral victory crown after shutting out Chivas USA.

"We understand that we defended a lot this game," said the midfielder. "At the end of the day, we're happy. We're moving on to the next round."

Other expansion teams like Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC may dream of making the MLS playoffs, but Chivas has checked that box off the to-do list twice. It's left the club hungry for more.

"Last year, we were happy with just making it to the playoffs and everything else was frosting on the cake," said Chivas goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

Due to the loss of U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley at the start of the season, little was expected of Chivas USA.

"No one gave us a chance at the beginning of the year," said Preki, commenting on taking over the team as a rookie coach. Doubts also arose when the team parted ways with big-name offseason acquisition and former league MVP, Amado Guevara.

Yet the remaining players rallied. Chivas lost only once at home all season, secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and captured the local rivalry trophy versus the L.A. Galaxy.

"We made great strides this year," Preki said. "We made great strides last year. If we continue to develop, we're going to have a bright future."

The playoffs remain the final puzzle for the team to solve.

Against the Wizards, Chivas faced a bunkering defense determined not to make mistakes.

"They never crossed midfield," said midfielder Sacha Kljestan. "We got a ton of chances."

Chivas did manage to hit the woodwork twice against the Wizards, but close doesn't cut it for a team focused on improving its chances for the title.

Some players complained about the postseason format.

"You have D.C. United, who wins the Supporters' Shield," Guzan said. "We were second in the league. All of a sudden, both teams are out."

To a certain extent, Chivas players felt their hard work throughout the season had gone unrewarded.

"The playoff system is set up so that there's no real advantage for the higher seed," said captain Jesse Marsch. "The second game at home isn't that much of an advantage."

Although many players spoke of the team's closeness and chemistry, Preki may shake the roster up for next year in an attempt to continue on in future playoffs. His attacking options on the bench, once Razov and Galindo were no longer healthy, were very limited.

The 2007 edition of Chivas will have some positive memories, but every accomplishment led to greater expectations, leaving disappointment and frustration lingering long after the final whistle.

"It's been a long, successful year," Guzan said. "We did good things. That's why this hurts so bad right now."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.