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Mar 22, 2010

Will Chivas benefit from so much change?

2009 record and finish: 13-11-6 (fourth in Western Conference)

Key additions: M Osael Romero, D Michael Umaña, M Blair Gavin, M Ben Zemanski

Key losses: M Jesse Marsch, M Paulo Nagamura, D Carey Talley, D/M Bojan Stepanovic, D Shavar Thomas, M Sasha Victorine, D Jim Curtin, D Claudio Suarez

Key questions facing this team:

1. Will a change in coaches benefit Chivas USA?

When a team makes a managerial change, the reason is usually obvious. Either said head coach has underperformed, or he's moving on to bigger and better things. Yet in the case of former Chivas coach Preki, neither scenario applied. Although the former U.S. international was unable to break the Goats' streak of first-round playoff exits, his teams were always in the playoff picture. Yet in deciding to leave Chivas for Toronto FC, his departure was a case for which the words "mutual agreement" actually rang true in many respects. After three seasons in charge, it was almost as if Preki -- as strict a disciplinarian as they come -- simply wore out his welcome.

Into the breach steps former assistant Martin Vasquez, whose reputation as a player's coach could not be more different than that of his predecessor. That doesn't mean the lunatics are now running the asylum, but practices under the new manager have been described by one observer as "upbeat," and a more relaxed atmosphere now pervades the Chivas camp. Given the team's history of falling short in the postseason -- it has yet to win a playoff series in four attempts -- the change in dynamic could be just what Chivas needs.

2. Can the Goats survive their midfield losses?

For the last several seasons, Chivas' identity was centered on its midfield tandem of Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura, who provided the club with a borderline nasty edge while also contributing to the team's solid possession game. But Nagamura has since moved on to Mexican side Tigres, while Marsch retired after 14 MLS seasons.

So how will Chivas cope? So far this preseason, Vasquez has been mixing and matching his midfielders in a bid to find the right combination. If the Chivas manager opts for the dual holding midfielder approach, pairing Marcelo Saragosa with Michael Lahoud likely will prove to be the best option, with rookie Blair Gavin in reserve. But Vasquez has also admitted toying with the idea of using Sacha Kljestan and Osael Romero centrally in a bid to generate more offense.

The most likely solution will be something in between, and Vasquez will take comfort in the knowledge that he has plenty of complementary pieces at his disposal to get the midfield chemistry right.

MLS team previews

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC
Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas

3. Will the center of the Goats' defense hold up?

At present, Vasquez appears to have settled on Jonathan Bornstein and Michael Umaña as his two starting center backs, but there are questions surrounding both performers. Bornstein is a left back by trade, and although he performed well in the center of defense late last season, it remains to be seen whether his undersized 5-foot-9 frame can hold up there over an entire campaign -- one in which he'll likely miss more than a month to World Cup duty.

Umaña's pedigree as a Costa Rican international bodes well, but it's worth remembering that the 27-year-old did not impress during his first MLS stint with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005.

In reserve, the team has Yamith Cuesta. The former Colombian under-20 international logged heavy minutes down the stretch last season and, although largely solid, did show a penchant for costly lapses in concentration, as evidenced by the decisive penalty he conceded in the playoffs against Los Angeles. Since Claudio Suarez is expected to retire and Carey Talley has been waived, this trio will have to get the job done.

Biggest X factor: Osael Romero

When Kljestan struggled last season, all kinds of theories were offered up. Among the explanations were that he was tired, jaded after his failed transfer to Celtic or had simply lost confidence. But perhaps the biggest reason for Kljestan's drop in form was that there weren't many other creative performers on the team.

This is where Romero comes in. He excels in finding the dead spaces between the opponent's midfield and defense, and if Kljestan's slashing runs serve the purpose of freeing up Romero as opposed to crowding him, that could allow Kljestan to return to the stellar form he displayed in 2008. But if Romero struggles, teams will feel free to focus solely on Kljestan, making it difficult for him to have the impact the team needs.

Breakout player to watch: Michael Lahoud

Versatility has long been Lahoud's calling card, with the Wake Forest product showing he can excel in both attacking and holding midfield roles. Now, with the aforementioned departures of Marsch and Nagamura, Lahoud has a chance to make one of the midfield positions his own. At present, that appears to be on the right flank, but if Vasquez ultimately decides that more steel is needed in the middle, Lahoud can fill that need.

Another performer who could break through is midfielder Jorge Flores. Flores is a player more famous for winning the reality show "Sueño MLS" than for what he has done on the field. But so far during this preseason, Flores has shown well on the left side of midfield. If Kljestan assumes a more central role, that could free up the former U.S. under-20 international to show off the attacking side of his game.

Outlook:

Given the changes in head coach and personnel, Chivas is clearly a team in transition. In years past, the team was solid defensively yet a little light offensively. Now the opposite is true, and maintaining that balance between attack and defense will dictate how the Goats fare this season.

Zach Thornton delivered a comeback season for the ages last year, but injuries have limited his participation in training camp, leaving Dan Kennedy to take on most of the preseason minutes. The midfield shield provided by Nagamura and Marsch had long made up for any shortcomings in the back, but with those two players gone, there will likely be more pressure on the back line to snuff out opposing attacks.

On offense, both Kljestan and Romero should thrive in each other's company. The same is true for Galindo, who after years of struggling with abdominal injuries, has finally enjoyed an injury-free preseason and appears poised to repeat his heroics of 2007, when he led the team with 12 goals.

Yet the Goats are a team whose fate will rest heavily on its midfield. If the likes of Saragosa and Lahoud replicate the stellar defensive displays of past Chivas midfields, then another spot in the playoffs seems likely. Otherwise, a more entertaining team may find itself in the position of playoff spectator.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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