Today's season review is bittersweet. Forward Justin Braun played his fourth season with Chivas USA in 2011, and had a season that was simulaneously successful and inconsistent. A player who has been on the fringe of the U.S. Men's National Team picture during the Bob Bradley era, people who knew an awful lot about MLS frequently touted Braun as one of the best American forwards in the league. He has good size, at 6'3", and can put up with the physical nature of the league. Plus his work rate is fantastic, and he never seems to give less than everything on the field. What's not to like about that?
The truth is that while Chivas fans were huge fans of Braun, including in 2011, he has major holes in his game, and there are real questions about the extent of his true potential. At the very least, Braun is a mercurial forward who can have spectacular games, as he showed more than once last season. But his scoring came in bunches, so it was difficult to count on him for important goals in key games. He may have the tools to become a U.S. international-caliber striker, but it's unclear if that expectation can truly be realized.Braun was tied for the team lead in goals in 2011, with eight. He would have won the team's golden boot, but he was edged out by Nick LaBrocca, who had one more assist (LaBrocca had six, Braun five). Although Robin Fraser didn't seem that keen on Braun when he arrived, bringing him off the bench and playing him on the right wing, Braun still saw considerable action, making 29 appearances with 22 starts, and seemed up for the challenge at any time. By midseason, Fraser realized Braun should be played up top, and he spent much of the season teamed with Alejandro Moreno. My position about the two guys is that they are both ideally support strikers, and so teaming them up together left many occasions where there was a lack of attacking bite in and around the box. Once Juan Pablo Angel joined the club, that distinction became even more stark, as JPA was a terrific target forward, and Braun and Moreno played off him well.
The headlines for the season for Braun came in two games. On May 15, Chivas traveled to New Jersey to play the then-high flying New York Red Bulls. At that point, the Red Bulls were believed to be genuine contenders for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup. We all know what happened over the course of the season, but Chivas were one of the first teams to really demonstrate the frailties in the Red Bulls' defense, as Braun scored a hat trick in a wild 3-2 victory. Coming against a high profile opponent, on national television, meant that Braun's accomplishment got a lot of attention, which was obviously deserved. He also netted a second hat trick on the season, against the Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center on July 23, a 3-0 victory for the Goats. I believe he was the only player in the league to get two hat tricks on the season, which is also pretty impressive.
The downside to his great performances in those two games is in looking at the other goals on the season. Taking away the hat tricks, Braun only scored two goals. One came in a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Union June 25, and the other in a 3-0 win against Toronto FC September 24. As a result, seven of Braun's eight goals came in victories for Chivas, which is a significant statistic, because scoring mostly equaled winning for Chivas. But Braun only scored in four games all season. So he helped in three victories, which all happened to be 3-0 wins. He scored the winning goal in two of those games, of course, so he was directly responsible for two wins.
Now, I'm not sure how that statistic stacks up against other top forwards in MLS. While ideally players are clutch, scoring at the right time, we can't begrudge a player for scoring when his team is way behind, or when the victory is in hand. Still, scoring once every 7.25 appearances in 2011 is not a great rate. The games in which Braun was good, he looked and played very well. But there were too many games in which his touch was poor, where he couldn't get a good look at goal, where his shots were way off. He's 24, so he has time in developing further, but he honestly did not look like a USMNT-caliber forward in 2011, no matter how cool it would have been.
Now, his development will continue away from Carson, as he was traded to the Montreal Impact last month with Gerson Mayen in exchange for James Riley and allocation money. Despite his inconsistency, the trade seemed to come out of the blue, and losing Braun means Chivas have lost youth and MLS experience up top, at least for the moment. While the forwards ended up having a pretty decent season overall, it too often seemed like they were collectively held together by duct tape and good wishes. JPA proved to be a real surprise in his stint with Chivas, but more needs to be done, especially with Braun's departure. The forward position, and the defense are issues that absolutely must be addressed this offseason. Can Chivas find an upgrade for Braun? It won't be easy, but here's hoping.
In Montreal, Braun will probably enjoy attention and support by the coaching staff and fans. He played with Impact coach Jesse Marsch at Chivas, and at this point, will probably be the forward on the squad with the most MLS experience, unless Brian Ching relents and agrees to play for the Impact. I wouldn't be surprised if Braun has his best year in 2012. But I am inclined to believe he's still going to struggle with inconsistency. Still, he was a class act, and it is tough to see him leave. I wish him nothing but the best in Montreal, although I hope he doesn't score a hat trick against Chivas...that's not too much to ask, is it?
What do you think? Leave a comment below!