Chivas USA's injury crisis and tentative start to its new era has forged a deeper side with more options in every sense, and the Goats hope -- no, expect -- to take a big step forward in Saturday night's Home Depot Center clash with the Columbus Crew.
Coach Robin Fraser and his staff have been forced to juggle things, especially on the backline, and their solutions have worked mostly. Michael Lahoud has slid seamlessly into the right-back slot -- “I think he's tailor-made to be an outside back,” Fraser says -- and Heath Pearce, in last week's draw in Toronto, took to center back like an old hand.
Pearce, a natural left back who has been the Goats' starting right back, has played in Europe and for the U.S. national team -- he was on the U.S.'s 30-man preliminary World Cup roster last year -- and so he understands the game. Perhaps it's not so surprising that he's adapted to the new position, one he says he'd previously played only in a couple of training sessions with the national team, without the least struggle.
“As left or right back, you're playing next to a center back, and it's imperative that you know the center-back position to understand where you're supposed to be,” said Pearce, who was acquired in a preseason trade from FC Dallas. “So I don't think the learning curve is that big. It's a position I'm definitely comfortable with. Anywhere that they feel that I can help the team the most, I'm willing to do that.”
Fraser said the move sparked signs of leadership from Pearce that he's been waiting to see emerge.
“A player in his situation isn't going to step in an impose himself. He's going to learn the lay of the land and that sort of thing,” Fraser said. “I think he'd been through enough situatioins where he's starting to recognize the leadership void that we have had. And I'll tell you, the second he jumped into center back, it's almost like he slid into the driver's seat.”
Chivas (0-2-1) gets rookie Zarek Valentin back from the U.S. under-20 national team. He started the opener at center back before leaving for the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, but it's uncertain that he'll start against Columbus. Backline leader Jimmy Conrad remains out with a concussion.
MARSHALL'S MENTOR: Fraser and Crew defender Chad Marshall, who's from Riverside, teamed together for Columbus in 2004 (Marshall's rookie year) and 2005 (Fraser's final season). Fraser, who was MLS's 2004 Defender of the Year, served as a mentor to the big, young center back.
Marshall has battled concussion problems, severe enough that he's considered early retirement, to become one of the league's premier central defenders. He was the league Defender of the Year in 2008 and 2009 and has been superb to start this season.
Fraser's a big fan.
“It's unbelievable to me that Chad hasn't played in two World Cups,” the Chivas USA coach said. “I'll put it that way. I think he's that good.”
Marshall was on the preliminary World Cup roster last year, but the Americans have relied primarily on Europe-based defenders the past couple of cycles.
He's looking forward to going up against Fraser.
“In my eyes, he's the best defender to ever play in this league,” he told the Crew's Web site. “You couldn't help but learn from him. His communication was really good, he had guys organized. Obviously, his speed didn't hurt him; he was one of the fastest guys on the field. He commanded respect from people. You didn't want to let him down.”
INJURY LIST: Only midfielder Blair Gavin (hamsting strain) and forward Tristan Bowen (sprained ankle) are listed as out for Chivas, but Conrad and midfielder Paulo Nagamura (calf strain), both officially questionable, aren't going to go either. Midfielder Simon Elliott (sprained knee) also is questionable, and that's fair -- he's practicing fully and might be available.
Former Polish national-teamer Robert Warzycha, a winger of quality, was an MLS original with the Crew, wrapping up a 17-year career with seven seasons in Columbus. He became an assistant coach upon retiring, spent the last half of 2005 as interim head coach, then got the job full-time last year after Sigi Schmid took off for Seattle after the 2008 MLS Cup triumph.
Three key players
Midfielder Eddie Gaven, a ninth-year veteran at 24, has evolved into a tricky flank creator, expert at beating defenders to score or set up chances for teammates.
Robbie Rogers, an MLS Best XI selection in 2008 and a preliminary-roster selection for last year's World Cup team, could be MLS's premier winger if his productivity rises.
Jamaica-born Jeff Cunningham, who returned in the re-entry draft to his original club, dueled back and forth last year with Jaime Moreno for MLS's career goals lead. He sits one behind the retired D.C. legend with 132.
The Crew, MLS Cup champs three years ago and Supporters' Shield winner in 2008 and 2009, enter this season with lots of questions after their long, slow fade last year and the subsequent roster rebuild. Influential veterans Guillermo Barros Schelotto (MLS's 2008 MVP), Frankie Hejduk (now with the Galaxy), Brian Carroll and Gino Padula were scuttled, and it's led to a more mobile side still developing leadership and personality. Three games in, the Crew are 1-1-1 and two of their three goals are from the penalty spot.
Marshall played at Rubidoux High School and for Irvine Strikers. ... Rogers lived in Palos Verdes and Huntington Beach and played at Mater Dei High School and for Orange County Blue Star. ... English defender Andy Iro was an All-American at UC Santa Barbara.
The Crew's new, thus-far-disappointing Designated Player Andres Mendoza is out with an adductor strain. Also out: defender Shaun Francis (hamstring strain) and defender/midfielder Danny O'Rourke (knee surgery).
At Home Depot Center (Carson), 7:30 p.m.
TV: Prime Ticket and KWHY/Channel 22
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690)
Referee: Yader Reyes