CHIVAS: Braun puts Goats in playoff mix

Justin Braun raises his arms in triumph celebrating one of his three goals Saturday. Braun has two hat tricks this seaosn. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

CARSON -- A new formation -- or, rather, an old one revisited -- and a spectacular night from Justin Braun has put Chivas USA in postseason position. No kidding.

Braun's second hat trick of the season, on three superbly taken goals, delivered a comprehensive 3-0 triumph Saturday night over the Houston Dynamo, vaulting the Goats (6-7-8) into sixth place in Major League Soccer's Western Conference -- and into 10th overall, good enough to snag the last playoff berth if the season stopped now.

That would mean more in a couple of months, but head coach Robin Fraser, who altered his alignment, changed a couple of assignments and welcomed back from injury a pivotal performer, wasn't complaining.

“More than anything right now, it means we're within striking range,” he said after Chivas pushed its unbeaten streak to five games. “Certainly, we want to make sure we're always in striking range.”

Braun, taking to heart some lessons on how to be more precise in the final third, scored in the 31st, 40th and 86th minutes, benefiting mightily from Fraser's alterations. He came into the game with just four goals -- three of them in the May 15 victory at New York -- but finished as the club's No. 2 all-time goal scorer.

His third of the night was his 19th as a Goat, one more than Maykel Galindo tallied in his time in red and white and 11 off Ante Razov's club record.

“It's cool to get another hat trick,” Braun said. “I kind of went through a dry spell there, but it's nice to get that weight off my shoulders. But the most important thing is that the team came out, we played well collectively and got three points tonight, which we needed.”

The Goats notched their third shutout of the last four games and might have scored more. Michael Lahoud -- back in midfield, on the right flank, with Zarek Valentin back at right back -- forced a diving save from Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall in the 14th minute.

Valentin was back on the right because Ante Jazic was back from a calf injury -- and he was outstanding on the flank, setting up the first and third goals with outstanding balls from the left.

Fraser went back to a 4-1-4-1 alignment, as he used in preseason and at season's start, pairing Nick LaBrocca and Blair Gavin atop a midfield triangle with Simon Elliott underneath. It made a possession side more possessive.

“We felt like when we possess really well, we are most dangerous,” Fraser said. “Our midfield certainly has had moments where they have been very, very good in possession, so it was just a thought to go back to that and try to regain more possession.

“We're a little bit more mature and a little further ahead than we were at the beginning of the season [and] we felt very strongly that this group of midfielders would be able to take some possession and turn it into dangerous opportunities. Certainly nice when you get it right.”

A quick look at Chivas' victory:

BEST PLAYER: How do you not go with Braun? He scored three very fine goals, caused problems for the Dynamo defense from start to finish, and showed great discipline in his runs and positioning as he went for goal.

That's something he's been working on.

“We've been talking a lot about his positioning,” Fraser said. “As we've said all along, this is a process, and I feel like things are clicking at different times for different players, and I thought tonight he did a really good job of being in dangerous spots.”

Braun said it was about staying in the middle, not roaming so much to the flanks.

“Trying to stay more centrally and make darting runs,” he explained. “And it paid off, the work and the advice the coaches have been giving me, it paid off. Hopefully, I can keep using it and keep scoring some goals.”

BEST GOAL: Take your pick, all three were nice. Braun's finishing was superb, clinical -- especially on the second, in which he ran onto Gavin's deflected pass in the box, and poked it over Hall, who had come off his line.

There was more to like about all three than just the finish. The interchange between Jorge Flores and Jazic on the left flank, and then Jazic's cross, made the first one go. LaBrocca's header from Elliott's ball niftily set up Gavin's pass for No. 2. And the ball movement on the finale, especially Francisco Mendoza's sweet diagonal ball for Jazic's service, was superb.

It was some of the most precise play the Goats have had in the attacking third this season.

“[Precision] really was the word we used all week in talking about when we do create chances or we come close to creating chances, precision is the thing that is most needed to score goals, and it's the accurate pass, the proper first touch, the concentration on the finish, all those things," Fraser said. "And I thought tonight when we needed to be precise, we were.”

BIGGEST STRUGGLE: All the struggles were with Houston (5-7-9), which put a lot of pressure on Chivas' backline at the start, then quickly faded and, once Braun netted his first, were no longer in the game.

“Their first goal took the wind out of our sails, and we never recovered ...,” Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear said. “We didn't play good. I'm not going to make any excuses. We didn't play good. When you don't play good, you lose more games than you win. We deserved what we got.”

Missing two starters to red-card suspensions -- forward Brian Ching and winger Colin Clark -- did not help, and when Je-Vaughn Watson picked up his second yellow card for clipping LaBrocca in the 70th minute, it was over.

“If any guys are not here for any reason, its tough,” Kinnear said. “When they're not here because of suspension, it sticks out.”

Any positives? “Zero added time at the end of 90 minutes.”

WORTH NOTING: Ben Zemanski wasn't available because of a sprained left ankle that will sideline him up to two weeks. ... Mendoza came on in the 72nd minute for his 123rd appearance for the Goats, tying the club record held by former captain Jonathan Bornstein. ... Both sides started rookie right backs from the University of Akron: Houston's Kofi Sarkodie, 20, and Chivas' Valentin, who will be 20 next month. ... Forward Alejandro Moreno did not play as Venezuela wrapped up a wonderful Copa America campaign with a 4-1 loss to Peru in the third-place game. He's expected to be available for next weekend's game at FC Dallas.

FINAL JUDGMENT: “Once we started connecting a bit in the midfield in the first half, then I think you could see our confidence grow,” Fraser said. “And as we started to get a little bit more confidence, we gained more and more possession, and we were able to turn those possessions into decent chances.

“At the end of the day, some of the goals were really, really good, in terms of great service, great runs by Justin and very, very good finishing -- just very determined runs and very determined finishing. So for us it was certainly a good night, and I think even more so than winning was that we were able to play with confidence. When we do play with confidence, we are a decent team.”

NEXT: Sunday, July 31 at FC Dallas, 4 p.m. (Fox Sports West and Galavision)


Home Depot Center (Carson)

Chivas USA 3, Houston Dynamo 0

C -- Justin Braun (Ante Jazic) 31

C -- Justin Braun (Blair Gavin) 40

C -- Justin Braun (Ante Jazic, Francisco Mendoza) 86

Chivas USA: Dan Kennedy; Zarek Valentin, Michael UmaƱa, Heath Pearce, Ante Jazic; Simon Elliott; Michael Lahoud, Blair Gavin (Paulo Nagamura, 80), Nick LaBrocca, Jorge Flores (Francisco Mendoza, 72); Justin Braun (Chris Cortez, 87). Unused subs: Andy Boyens, Marcos Mondaini, Zach Thornton, Mariano Trujillo.

Houston Dynamo: Tally Hall; Kofi Sarkodie (Alex Dixon, 72), Jermaine Taylor, Andrew Hainault, Corey Ashe; Danny Cruz (Adam Moffat, 67), Geoff Cameron, Je-Vaughn Watson, Brad Davis; Cam Weaver, Will Bruin.

Yellow cards: Watson 43, 70, Braun 81. Red card: Watson 70.

Referee: Abiodun Okulaja. Att.: 11,013.