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May 22, 2009

Preki's emphasis on defense pays dividends for Chivas

There was a time when an MLS coach could use injuries as a reason for why his team was underperforming. Sure, he usually would preface such comments with "Injuries aren't an excuse, but...," at which point he would rattle off how the absence of a certain player was killing the team. Not anymore, as Chivas USA -- led by coach Preki -- has rocketed to the top of the MLS standings, all while seeing its injured players miss more games than Manny Ramirez.

Granted, the Goats' dream start hit a speed bump this past weekend, as their normally impregnable defense shipped two late goals to turn an apparent victory over D.C. United into a 2-2 tie. However, mostly everything else has gone right, as Chivas is eight points clear of its nearest competitors. That the team has done so without getting a minute from the likes of Ante Razov, Claudio Suarez, Bobby Burling, Lawson Vaughn and Ante Jazic is nothing short of astonishing. And attackers Maykel Galindo and Sasha Victorine just recently returned to the lineup.

So how has the team thrived despite this avalanche of injuries? It starts with a humble, blue-collar approach that permeates the entire squad.

"None of us are big-time players," captain Jesse Marsch said. "A few of have us have been around on a few different teams, and so I think you appreciate it when you are around a bunch of guys that care about each other, come to work every day the right way and appreciate doing the right things to be on a winning team."

The one "big-time" exception is Suarez, who despite not playing at all this season because of a left calf strain remains an immense influence at the club.

"Suarez is such a humble guy," Marsch said. "I always feel like it really doesn't give any room for anybody to have too big of an ego. You're playing next to a guy who was one of the most successful players in the history of Mexico, and he still comes to work every day like he's still trying to prove himself."

MLS Primetime
Thursday, May 28
Chicago at Chivas USA
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

Yet the team's personality is very much a reflection of its head coach. Talk to Preki for any amount of time, and it's clear that words such as "complacency" and "satisfied" aren't in his vocabulary. When his team takes the field, a physical, hardworking squad is on view, and no matter who is missing, positive results are still expected. That approach isn't unique, but the success the team has enjoyed certainly is.

"Listening to Preki or watching him at training, you'd think that we hadn't won a single game," defender Carey Talley said. "He's out there pushing guys every day and wanting more and more from us."

That often leads the Chivas manager to downplay his team's accomplishments, although when talking about his side in a telephone interview earlier this week, he allowed a few words of praise to slip out.

"The group is working really hard," Preki said. "They're very determined once they get on the field, and it's all based on things we work on during the week. We emphasize being disciplined and sharp and playing the right way. I think that's why we're successful, because everyone is buying into it."

Yet when the philosophy of Preki the manager is set against that of Preki the player, the comparison borders on ironic overload. During his playing days, the two-time MLS MVP was a dynamic attacking player who wasn't exactly known for his defense. Now his coaching mantra is all about defense, and it's a paradox that isn't lost on his players.

"I used to think that as a player, he cheated the game," said Marsch, who went up against Preki numerous times while with Chicago. "I'll be honest, it's very surprising to have him as a coach and be so focused on certain things, given the kind of player he was."

It's a characterization with which Preki takes issue, and he correctly points out that by the time he entered MLS, he was well into his 30s and couldn't -- or at least shouldn't -- have been expected to cover acres of space. It's also an age when players begin to use their brains more than their legs, and his guile was such that he led Kansas City to an MLS Cup title in 2000 at the tender age of 37.

That ability to think about the game explains in part why the Chivas players buy into Preki's message. The concept of defensive organization is something the former U.S. international has been honing since his playing days, and he continued to improve that skill during his one year as a Chivas assistant under Bob Bradley in 2006.

"I always looked at [Preki] as a coach," said Talley, who roomed with the Chivas manager when the two were teammates in Kansas City. "When we talked tactics, he would always talk about defending and how we should go into a team shape. And he was always on the button."

Marsch added, "It makes sense, because [Preki] could see the game and see how to break teams down so easily and see situations and teams that weren't so easy to break down."

Preki's eye for talent also has paid dividends this year. This isn't the first season when the injury bug has bitten the Goats, and although they enjoyed regular-season success in both 2007 and 2008, a lack of depth, especially up top, scuttled the team's championship hopes.

This year's additions didn't initially dazzle the eye, but Chivas have gotten some immense contributions from the likes of Eduardo Lillingston, Bojan Stepanovic and Gerson Mayen. Their performance has softened the blow of missing players like Galindo and Razov for an extended period. It also has helped the team navigate through the struggles of attacking linchpin Sacha Kljestan, who only recently began to return to form.

"What we try to do here is just add a piece or two every year," Preki said. "When you see a huge turnover in your team, it's going to take a long, long, time for those players to adapt to your system. Those [new] players, they have to adapt fast, they have to learn from the group fast. We've been fortunate that things have been working out for us."

The idea of course is for things to work out in the playoffs, in which Chivas has never won a series despite being a higher-seeded team each of the past two years. Preki is philosophical about his team's postseason failures and indicated that he thought his side was equally as good as Kansas City in 2007 and Real Salt Lake in 2008, saying that only the smidgen of luck that playoff teams need kept the Goats from advancing. With a deeper team, the expectation is that this is the year Chivas will break through.

"We just have to keep believing in what we're doing, and hopefully the squad that we have that is now quite good and quite big is turning the corner," Preki said. "Hopefully, at the right time, we'll be ready to go."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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