CARSON, Calif. -- Bob Bradley gave Chivas USA an identity. Preki turned the club into a winner. Now the reins are in Martin Vasquez's hands, and the only man to play for both the U.S. and Mexican national teams has a plan to reach the next step: winning a title.
Vasquez has quickly left an imprint on L.A.'s No. 2 professional soccer team, which heads into its 2010 Major League Soccer opener Friday night against Colorado at the Home Depot Center as a younger, looser and tighter-knit group that makes its aim no secret.
"We have the desire to win -- not just games, but titles," said right back Mariano Trujillo, one of three Mexicans on this most Mexican of teams. "We want to make history in MLS. We picture ourselves enjoying and celebrating with the Cup. Less than that is not going to be good enough for us."
It's a sentiment shared by Vasquez, 46, who cautions against looking too far ahead in one breath ("It's too soon to talk about MLS Cup") and makes it clear he's doing so in the next. "We have high expectations, to go all the way," he said. "Those are the expectations for every coach in the league."
To ready the Rojiblancos for such a run, he has made a distinct break with the recent past while embracing the club's culture and its links to its parent club -- Mexico's mighty Club Deportivo Guadalajara, universally known as Chivas -- and implementing lessons gained working under Juergen Klinsmann at German powerhouse Bayern Munich.
The first expectation is to go further than the club managed during Bradley's and Preki's tenures.
Bradley reassembled Chivas USA after a dreadful debut campaign in 2005, in which it won only four of 32 games. He abandoned the emphasis on Latino players -- primarily Mexicans -- and took the Goats to the 2006 playoffs before stepping down to become head coach of the U.S. national team.
Preki -- a two-time MLS MVP and scoring champion and a veteran of the 1998 World Cup -- stepped in and guided them to the Western Conference regular-season title in 2007, and into the playoffs again in 2008 and last season.
In eight playoff games, Chivas USA has won once. It has fallen in its opening-round, two-leg, aggregate playoff series by one goal for four straight seasons.
Last year's failure, against the Galaxy, was the end for Preki, who jumped to Toronto FC.
Vasquez knows the history intimately. He served as assistant coach to Thomas Rongen and Hans Westerhof in Year 1, to Bradley the second season and to Preki before Klinsmann, a legendary striker who calls Huntington Beach home, called in July 2008.
More than that, Vasquez knows what the name Chivas represents to his countrymen on both sides of the border. He was born in Jalisco, near Guadalajara, and cheered for the club as a child, continuing to follow the team after moving to Southern California when he was 12. His professional career included stints with four Mexican clubs, and "one time I almost, almost had the opportunity to play for Chivas de Guadalajara, but unfortunately I went to another team."
"We all, us Mexicans," he said, "are very aware of what Chivas represents in Mexican soccer, and in our culture."
He has been imparting that message to his players, making certain they understand what the crest on their jersey stands for, making it clear that Chivas USA is not just another club.
"He's passionate about his job, and he's passionate about Chivas," said midfielder Sacha Kljestan, a 2008 MLS Best XI selection, who will take the captain's armband this season. "You can tell that, especially when he speaks to the team and speaks about the team."
Vasquez does so far more often than Preki did, and his personality is nothing like Preki's -- and that might have a positive impact on the field.
Where Preki was intense and demanding, Vasquez is relaxed and nurturing. Where Preki was businesslike, Vasquez is familial. Where Preki criticized, Vasquez encourages.
"Martin is more kind of a good guy. He's joking all the time; he's playing with us," Trujillo said. "Preki's different. His culture is European [Preki is a Serb who moved to America in the 1980s]; it's different than us. So I think the environment, the atmosphere inside the group is completely different. It's more, like, relaxed, and we're enjoying everything.
"I'm not saying that Preki's style is bad, but it's completely different just too quiet, too straight, too serious -- too square, sometimes."
Vasquez says he has learned from every coach with whom he has worked, but the season with Klinsmann made a huge impression.
"Juergen, in his time as a player, he won everything. He accomplished what any player wants to accomplish," Vasquez said. "What I admire of him is that now as a coach, he's the most humble person. And everything, it's about the team and the players. He knows that he had his moment, and he enjoyed it, but he understands now as a coach it's about the players and not about him anymore.
"That's how I see myself coming into this organization. It's not about me. It's about Chivas USA, it's about the players, and it's about the youth players we have in our academy. Hopefully, our players believe in this approach, because if they do, I think we can have a very good environment."
Vasquez has a younger group to work with after the retirements of on-field leader Jesse Marsch, legendary captain Claudio Suarez and veteran midfielder Sasha Victorine, and the departures of forward Ante Razov (still rehabbing injuries), gritty midfielder Paulo Nagamura (to Mexico's UANL Tigres) and defensive leader Carey Talley (who asked for his release so he could player closer to his home in Memphis).
The impact will be felt primarily in midfield. Marsch and Nakamura were one of the league's premier central tandems. Vasquez used several alignments during preseason -- primarily a flat 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 with a midfield triangle, although both can morph into more complicated alignments; a 4-1-2-2-1 could be seen Friday -- and the biggest change is how the central midfielders will be utilized.
The triangle can be played with two creative and one holding midfielder or one creative and two holding midfielders, and the personnel -- Kljestan, Marcelo Saragosa, Michael Lahoud, Salvadoran newcomer Osael Romero and rookies Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski -- is versatile enough to make any necessary adjustment.
Kljestan has been stationed on the flank for most of his four MLS seasons, but he'll see a lot of time in the middle, paired with Romero in front of Saragosa.
"I've played everywhere in preseason," Kljestan said. "I feel like I can play anywhere. I feel pretty comfortable in the middle of the field, and I think it's better for the team if I'm in the middle of the field, because I'm on the ball more and I'm trying to dictate the way the game is played a little more."
The triangle requires wingers -- Lahoud, Jorge Flores, Justin Braun and Jesus Padilla provide options -- and would generally leave Maykel Galindo as the lone forward. If Vasquez inverts the triangle, Lahoud would slot in next to Saragosa with Kljestan pushing out to the right flank.
A two-forward lineup is likely once Brazilian forward Maicon Santos -- out more than a month during preseason because of a knee strain -- is ready. Eduardo Lillingston returns in July from a loan to the second-tier club in Tijuana.
The Goats have struggled to score goals since Razov and Galindo were injured just before the 2007 playoffs. Razov, reinjured the following year, has an invitation to return if he's able, and Galindo, who has scored only six goals the past two seasons after getting a dozen in '07, begins the season in his best health since then.
Big things are expected of Romero, 23, who started eight World Cup qualifiers for El Salvador.
"He's a young kid; I think he's tough " Vasquez said. "On the field, he's short in stature [5-feet-6], but he plays huge."
The other newcomer expected to make an impact is central defender Michael Umana, a Costa Rican international who spent the 2005 MLS season with the Galaxy. He'll partner with Jonathan Bornstein, Kljestan's co-captain, in the middle, with Canadian veteran Ante Jazic on the left.
Reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zach Thornton has been limited by a quad strain, so Dan Kennedy will probably start the opener. The battle for the No. 1 job should be tight -- Kennedy was the expected starter last year until a knee injury ended his season.
Vasquez wants his team to play attractive, attacking soccer, but so did Preki, and Chivas USA's brand has won plaudits across the league. The difference is primarily pacing and emphasis.
"I think you'll see a little more calmness out there," Kljestan said. "We've tried to settle the game down a little bit more and tried to dictate the pace a little bit more [rather than] play a little bit frantic, like we did in the past."
Said Bornstein: "I think some guys feel a little freer to express themselves on the field a little bit more, whereas last year they may have played a little tighter, kind of timid. We're not going to worry about every single touch, every bad ball. Just shrug it off and move on."
Vasquez says he thinks of Chivas USA as a family -- "It's your first family at times, or it feels like your first family, for sure your second family" -- and says he's looking to create a culture that will lead to trophies.
"It's about creating an environment of every day coming in and getting better," he said. "We expect our locker room to be tight and healthy, and especially on the field to have the mentality to come in and be competitive. If we're able to do that consistently, we will be successful."