Ben Zemanski has confidence in his ability to play on the backline. Good thing, because that's where he'll be Saturday night.
The second-year midfielder will get the call next to veteran Jimmy Conrad for Chivas USA's clash with MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids at Home Depot Center, stepping in after international call-ups whisked away three of the Goats' central defenders.
He's had little experience in central defense, getting a few minutes there during a preseason scrimmage against San Jose, after Conrad was red-carded in a preseason charity match two weeks ago and in training this week.
“He's doing great ...,” said Chivas head coach Robin Fraser, a star center back in his playing days. “It's something we looked at a little bit earlier in preseason, just thinking out ahead, and he's done very well. He's new at it, but he's got the right mentality for it.”
Rookie Zarek Valentin, who started in the middle of last weekend's season-opening loss to Sporting Club Kansas City, is off with the U.S. under-20 national team, which begins qualifying for the U-20 World Cup on Tuesday in Guatemala. Michael Umaña, a starter last year, is with Costa Rica's national team. And newcomer Andy Boyens is in China with New Zealand's national team.
Zemanski gets the nod over raw Ghanaian newcomer Seth Owusu.
The former University of Akron standout, who got the start at holding midfielder in last weekend's season-opening loss to Sporting Club Kansas City after injuries to four potential starters, says he's ready for the challenge.
“It's just about reading the game and getting comfortable with that position ...,” Zemanski said Friday. “I've got [Conrad] to my left and Heath [Pearce] to my right, so both of them are good veterans who are helping me transition to that position a little better.”
“He's got good instincts,” Conrad reports. “He's always thinking about 'How can I win the ball? How can I help the defense' His energy and commitment is there. … I just think he almost has to slow his game down a little bit and take more of a zen approach that we can't win every ball.”
Also gone is forward Alejandro Moreno, who is with Ecuador's national team. Rookie forward Victor Estupiñan is slated to start up top.
Colorado also is shorthanded, missing star forward Omar Cummings, who is with Jamaica's national team. Cummings is the most explosive forward in MLS, and his performance the second half of last season and into the playoffs was pivotal in the Rapids' title run.
“Cummings is a game-changer,” Fraser said. “He's lightning. He's lightning fast, and he's developed into a really good soccer player over the last number of years. Anyway you slice it, [his absence] changes their team. But they're still a very good team.”
WORTH NOTING: Michael Lahoud and Blair Gavin are set for the midfield triangle, along with Nick LaBrocca, at the heart of Fraser's preferred 4-1-4-1 alignment. Gavin, coming off a long-term hamstring injury, said 90 minutes might be asking too much; Fraser likes his calmness on the ball and the ideas he brings to attack.
INJURY LIST: Paulo Nagamura remains out with a strained left calf, fellow central midfielder Simon Elliott with a sprained right knee.
ALSO MISSING: Just Moreno and the three central defenders away on international duty.
Gary Smith, who played as midfielder in English soccer's lower divisions before beginning his coaching career at Wimbledon, has built the Rapids into one of MLS's fastest and most dangerous sides and guiding them to the MLS Cup title last November.
Three key players
Conor Casey plays target man opposite Cummings -- and he's one of MLS's best finishers, with 13 goals last year -- but he's more versatile than the appellation suggests.
Jeff Larentowicz has been among the league's better central midfielders for several years, but he took a big step forward when paired with Pablo Mastroeni following last year's trade from New England.
The forwards and that tremendous midfield get first billing, but Drew Moor is an excellent anchor for a solid backline.
The Rapids looked like champs while scoring three goals in the first half-hour in its season-opening win over expansion Portland last week, and they won't sneak up on anyone as they did last year. Their starting XI is superior to all but one or two rivals' lineups, and their first-choice midfield -- with Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan wide and Larentowicz and Mastroeni in the middle -- might be the league's best.
Defender Marvell Wynne, from Poway in San Diego County, was an All-American at UCLA. … Jamaican defender Tyrone Marshall was a starter for both of the Galaxy's MLS Cup champions; he played 139 league games for L.A. from 2002 through 2007. … Midfielder Brian Mullan began his MLS career with the Galaxy, playing in 39 league games in 2001-02. … Larentowicz was born in Pasadena (but raised near Philadelphia).
Cummings is the big loss -- Quincy Amarikwa is expected to take his spot, but might this be the right time for English forward Caleb Folan's debut? Also away on international duty is midfielder Sanna Nyassi (Gambia). … Forward Macoumba Kandji is out with the ACL tear he suffered while scoring (in all but name) the winning goal in the MLS Cup final. … Forward Andre Akpan is out with a hamstring strain.
At Home Depot Center (Carson), 7:30 p.m.
TV: KDOC/Channel 56
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690, Spanish)
Referee: Terry Vaughn