The dream of a first trophy for Chivas USA ended Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal, when the Seattle Sounders beat Chivas 4-1 at Starfire. Goals from Eddie Johnson, Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans and Sammy Ochoa fueled the hosts into their fourth consecutive USOC final, while Chivas got their goal from Cesar Romero. Although the scoreline got out of hand in the end, the game was for all intents and purposes over when Johnson opened the scoring late in the first half.
Both teams played a tight and physical game through the first 20 minutes. Although the Sounders had more attacking intent from the start, Chivas actually had an outstanding chance in the 21st minute. After a nice build-up in the midfield, Paolo Cardozo sent a nice ball to the left of the box for Jorge Villafana, who pushed up and sent a beautiful cross right in front of goal. Both Alejandro Moreno and Juan Pablo Angel were making runs toward the cross, but they were both a split second slow (surprise) and the ball sailed harmlessly away. Had Chivas scored at that point, the game could have turned out very differently.Seattle got the scoring going in earnest in the 31st minute. Johnson sprung an attempted offside trap by Chivas that failed miserably, as he received a great pass from Alonso and had only Dan Kennedy to beat. Kennedy came way out to the edge of the box to try and throw Johnson off, and may have gotten a piece of the shot, but it was too strong and it went in the back of the net. Although Chivas didn't look completely abject at that point, it seemed clear that they were playing for a clean sheet, so to give up a goal represented a big failure in the gameplan.
Chivas' hopes to get a quick equalizer in the second half were dashed when they conceded a penalty to Fredy Montero in the 47th minute. Alonso stepped up, and while it wasn't the 'panenka' that the announcers claimed it was, it was an off-speed chip and easily fooled Kennedy, to put the hosts up 2-0 by the 48th minute. Quite simply, the game was over at that point.
Of course, Chivas had to give fans a measure of false hope, as Romero made a terrific move with the ball, cutting in and moving into the box, shooting once, and then following up on the rebound after Bryan Meredith made a save, to score in the 74th minute. At this point, the scoreline was 2-1, so the game wasn't out of hand, but even with the temporary shift in momentum, the Sounders turned on the jets once again and put the game away once and for all.
Seattle grabbed their third in the 83rd, when after a nice exchange between Johnson and Montero deep in the midfield, Montero dribbled on a diagonal run into the box, and sent a simple pass to Evans, who was making a run of his own from the other direction. Villafana was caught completely out on the play and could not recover in time, and Kennedy could not seal off two threats at once, so Evans scored easily.
They wrapped up the match with a fourth goal in the 88th minute, when Ochoa, who had just come on as a sub, stole the ball from Villafana in the box and beat Kennedy again. It's Ochoa's second goal in as many appearances against Chivas.
So, how to approach this match? There are multiple angles, but let's look at a few talking points in the immediate aftermath.
The gameplan failed: I know many Chivas fans chafe at the defensive gameplan Robin Fraser favors at times. I know I've been complaining a lot about Chivas' scoring woes lately, and I hear the complaints. But I agreed with taking a defensive approach heading into the match. Seattle was so completely dominant in the Open Cup and have been undefeated at Starfire for years, so this wasn't a typical match. As a result, I was on board with a somewhat more conservative style of play, at least initially.
Here's the problem: Chivas' attacking lineup was not exactly inspiring. Although JPA and Moreno are good veterans, I think having both of them on the field at the same time at the expense of Jose Correa to start was a mistake. I've also been vocal in my lack of plaudits for Blair Gavin and Paolo Cardozo this season, both of whom started, and both of whom disappointed again. And although I don't know if Nick LaBrocca was injured (I assume he must have been if he didn't even make the bench) but I don't know why he didn't play if he was healthy.
Putting out that attacking combination put Chivas behind the 8 ball from the beginning, in my opinion. Although his defensive frailties were costly in the second half, I think Villafana was Chivas' best attacker in the first half. Think about that: the back-up left back was the best attacker at one point. Good for sueno, but that puts the rest of the team to shame, really. In all, if a team is playing a defensive game and hopes to snatch a goal or two on the break, then they need the players who can actually play that style, or at least those most suited to that, on the field. It didn't seem the case in this game.
Substitution patterns confound again: Alright, I might as well mention once again that I'm not the coach. But why did Fraser wait until the 64th minute to make Chivas' first sub? The team was two goals down for about 15 minutes by that point. Why not make the first sub to start the second half? Short of that, why not very very soon after Alonso's PK? It seemed like Fraser was waiting for the players on the field to turn it on. But there was no indication they were capable of flipping a switch, nor has there been proof among most of those players this year that any such switch exists.
As it happened, the first sub of the night, Romero, got Chivas' goal, and so if Fraser had been able to pull off a stunning comeback with this substitution pattern, as he did in the Montreal win, I would have bowed down before him. But that seemed as implausible as it turned out to be. Chivas' renewal of hope came in the 74th minute and lasted no more than five minutes, before Seattle resumed control. Bringing on the first sub (Romero) in the 64th minute, the second (Correa) in the 70th minute, and the third (Smith) in the 85th minute, when Chivas were down 3-1, doesn't make much sense at all. Better to go for broke and send the subs out there earlier, because they could probably use more time on the field to get into the game.
I know some Chivas fans will start calling for Fraser's firing after this loss. I don't think that makes much sense at the moment. I think the team has upgraded talent overall and has shown improvement under Fraser. Has it been enough? No, but I don't know who would make a difference at this point in the season of the (theoretical) potential candidates available. Recent patterns make me wonder about Fraser's in-game management, but by no means do I think he needs to be fired right now.
Taking stock of the cup run: Ok, so the loss leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially in the immediate aftermath. But how can we assess Chivas' cup run this year? I think this run has been great for the club and the fans. Chivas made it to the final four, and losing to the three time-defending champion is nothing to be ashamed of. The performance wasn't good on the night, but the overall run was a good accomplishment in the history of the club, and hopefully it gives the team experience to use in futures USOC tournaments and in any games they play. It should also hopefully light a fire under the organization, so the desire to win trophies will be taken in earnest in the future. The semifinal exit is disappointing, but Chivas had a good run. Now, they need to keep that hunger alive and come back stronger for next year's edition.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!