Defense was the most improved unit of the team last season. The leadership of Heath Pearce and resurgence of Ante Jazic brought new life into a defense that had previously been horrendous. However, the one major weakness was depth. With Ante Jazic, Michael Umana and Andrew Boyens repeatedly being called up to their national teams, there were not very many options off the bench to fill their places.
While Boyens is no longer with the team, Heath Pearce’s recent call up to the USMNT January camp could be significant of more call-ups to come. Injuries to Pearce and Zarek Valentin in the later stages of the season also proved to be problematic. The signing of Brazilian David Junior Lopes was supposed to help alleviate this, but his inexperience proved to be extremely problematic, and we saw our strong defense face a little bit of a collapse. Often times Ben Zemanski was slotted into the defensive position as well; while he did well in the back, it was obvious that he is better suited to play in the midfield. Another factor to consider is Jorge Villafana, who played as left back during December’s U23 Olympic team camp. We’ve seen him play in the outside back position before, and with all of the midfield acquisitions this season, it could be possible that he will find a place as an outside back with Chivas USA as well.
Additionally, it seems more than likely now that Michael Umana will be leaving the team, as he has told Costa Rican press that he will be moving to Comunicaciones in Guatemala. With all this, it is quite obvious that depth is extremely necessary for next season. As much as the coaching staff works on strengthening the defensive unit that we currently have, it will all be futile without the right components behind the scene.
One of the biggest problems with this year’s draft class is the lack of good defensive options. Unlike last year’s class that saw many defenders picked in the first round, there are fewer options this year in terms of defenders who are 100% MLS ready.
Note: The favorite defensive picks in this draft are center backs. There are VERY FEW outside backs. For this reason, I have examined CB’s over outside backs.
Who could Chivas USA select with their first round pick? Let’s take a look:
Andrew Wenger (Duke) – Should Andrew Wenger still be available at the fifth pick, he is the obvious choice. Along with Darren Mattocks, however, he is touted as being one of the top two picks in the draft. A versatile player who has seen time both as a central defender and a forward, Wenger could do well under the wing of Fraser and Vanney. He spent his first two years in college as a central defender, but was moved up top when the team needed more options. He relished in this position as well, scoring 17 goals and tallying 8 assists. His college career earned him an invite to December’s U23 Olympic team camp. However, based on his skill level, it is widely believed that he will be utilized more defensively in his professional career. Regardless, Chivas USA need help in both positions, so he would be a perfect choice.
Matt Hedges (UNC) – Hedges is arguably the best center back in college soccer. With a dominating presence, anyone who has seen him play even half a game can understand why he is so highly rated. Admittedly, I have only seen Hedges play once, in this year’s College Cup semi-final matchup against UCLA. While the UNC defense conceded 2 goals, one could see Hedges' skill in the back. He is dominant in the air, great at passing out of the back, and intelligent. Besides his skill, Hedges never missed a game in his college career; knowing that he is not injury prone, at least on the college circuit, is always a plus.
Austin Berry (Louisville) – In every draft preview you read, Berry is listed as being dominant, intelligent and strong. While all of these attributes are true and something you want in a defender, his recent play has seen a bit of a dip. He was not as strong during Louisville’s quarterfinal loss to UCLA this year and was a bit lackluster in other matches this season. Will he be the fifth pick for Chivas USA? Doubtful. However, with a strong combine and past knowledge of his abilities, he is a good option.
Some players to consider for later picks:
Tommy Meyer (Indiana), Hunter Jumper (Virginia), Nicardo Blake (UCONN), Shawn Singh (UCLA), Chris Estridge (Indiana)
My pick: With the news of Umana leaving, it is quite obvious that our defense needs someone who can contribute right away. Because of this, I would pick Matt Hedges. However, that is SOLELY if the team plans on drafting a defender with this pick. I think it may be smart to go with a forward with the fifth overall pick and try to make some moves outside of the draft for a more experienced defender.