CARSON, CA - APRIL 21: McKenzie and Riley are playing well so far this season for Chivas USA. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Yesterday we kicked off the midseason report card for the Chivas USA by looking at the goalkeepers. Today, we turn to the defense. Collectively, the defense has been quite strong over the course of the season, and currently sit tied for third in the league in goals allowed with 18. With the exception of blowout losses to the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, the defense has been strong as a unit. Have they been perfect? No. But they have held up their end of the bargain for the club so far this season, and even the trade for Danny Califf seems to have improved the defense further. The scoring needs to come on in greater volume and more consistency, but we'll worry about that in evaluating the midfield and forwards. For now, let's discuss the defenders:
James Riley: The only Chivas player besides Dan Kennedy to play in every league match this season, Riley has been a fantastic addition to the team. He is the fastest defender on the team and certainly one of the fastest players on the entire squad, and his defending has been consistently strong. On top of that primary responsibility, Riley frequently moves up the field and gets involved in the attack as well, and is tied for the team lead in assists, with two, including a great diagonal cross to Juan Agudelo for a goal when Chivas played Riley's former team, the Seattle Sounders.Riley is a two-way fullback with a mature reading of the game. The case has been made for why he should be an All-Star on this website, and I have no complaints with that endorsement. He seems to have a pretty good chance of actually getting the nod, and if he continues the quality of performances he's been putting in so far, he'll be an outstanding return on Robin Fraser's investment in the offseason.
Riley's midseason grade: A
Ante Jazic: The Canadian continues the Indian summer of his career with another great start to the 2012 season. Unlike Riley, who bombs up and down the field for 90 minutes, and often makes the crazy runs to recover when he needs to or when a teammate needs help, Jazic plays a much more tactical game and is very smart at figuring out where to place himself depending on the situation at hand. He's also made runs up into the attack, but he hasn't been credited with an assist yet this season. He should have a qualified assist, however, as his cross set up Casey Townsend's goal against Real Salt Lake, only Nick Rimando bobbled the cross before Townsend scored the goal. But Jazic has been strong, only struggling in one match, when he led the late game meltdown against Colorado by giving up a silly penalty. He's also been recalled into the Canadian Men's National Team, and has helped keep Canada in the hunt for a World Cup spot during the recent qualifiers. Jazic is the true veteran of the backline, but he keeps on producing, and Chivas have to be happy about that production.
Jazic's midseason grade: B+
Rauwshan McKenzie: What a difference a year makes, for Chivas and McKenzie. Prior to this season, McKenzie saw the spottiest of spot duty in MLS, and when RSL cut him in the offseason their depth made it seem like it wouldn't be any real loss. Although RSL probably doesn't miss McKenzie much, their loss is certainly Chivas' gain. Think about the situation last season, as Andrew Boyens, Michael Umana and David Junior Lopes split time at center back, and is there anybody out there (besides their mothers) who would rather have any of them to McKenzie? I didn't think so. McKenzie has a good mix of strength and speed, and while his assignment seems to change depending on the opponent, he has been good on the whole at neutralizing strikers. He's played in 15 league matches and all three U.S. Open Cup matches, and he has set himself apart from his main competition, John Valencia, to establish himself as a first option at the position. If he has any drawbacks, it is that he seems to shut off occasionally and can make a mental lapse from time to time, and he seems liable to lay an egg over the course of a game once in a while. That said, he's been remarkably consistent for Chivas, and all in all, Fraser and company made a terrific addition in signing McKenzie in the offseason.
McKenzie's midseason grade: B
Danny Califf: The initial returns make it appear that Chivas definitely got a great deal in indirectly swapping Heath Pearce for Califf. When Califf joined the team, Chivas were just starting to click, and they've only lost one game since he joined the team. And while Pearce has more upside, he was the best trade chip for Chivas and they ended up getting Agudelo out of the trade, all while picking up Califf. In a couple of years, this trade may drift back in the New York Red Bulls' favor, but for now, Chivas have to be happy. Califf brings a vocal leadership component to the field that Chivas were sorely lacking, save for Peter Vagenas, who is not a regular starter. He's also been composed at center back and been very consistent in helping Chivas keep opponents' goals out of Kennedy's net. Califf jumped into the lineup straightaway and helped Chivas finally beat the Galaxy, and then helped the Goats rattle off a run in both league and Cup play, only interrupted by the RSL loss. The only reason I'm not giving him a higher grade is that his sample size is pretty small, and it is unclear if he's helped to elevate the team's form or if he lucked into a team rounding a bend. I think the first possibility is more likely, but we need to see him more before a full assessment can be made. Still, the future looks bright for the backline with Califf in it.
Califf's midseason grade: B
John Valencia: The Colombian was signed in the offseason, with the expectation that he would probably start at center back alongside Pearce. It is safe to say things haven't gone exactly as planned so far for Valencia. He suffered an injury before the season opener against the Houston Dynamo, and McKenzie stepped up and didn't really look back. Meanwhile, Valencia had to wait his turn to see a game, and finally had his debut against the Chicago Fire May 4. He played a good, if somewhat shaky game, and it seemed like any concerns probably stemmed from rust rather than ability. Chivas lost at the last minute in that match, but Valencia acquitted himself well. He started the next match, against the San Jose Earthquakes, but his lapse in failing to properly mark Alan Gordon meant Chivas dropped two points after holding a lead for nearly all of the match. He then started three matches later, against Seattle, but he was again at least partially responsible for giving up the equalizer by David Estrada, which resulted in another two points dropped for the Goats. He was subbed out in that match, and while he's started two U.S. Open Cup matches (and they won both of those games) he was subbed out in one of those games as well. It seems like Fraser doesn't quite trust Valencia and I don't blame him. I think the issue is that if any of the starters suffer an injury or suspension, the backups seem at least a step below, and in the current pecking order, Valencia very much appears to be a backup at the moment. Still, his sample size is quite small, and we could be in for a surprise if he actually sees regular action and gets into a rhythm in the second half of the season.
Valencia's midseason grade: C-
Scott Gordon: He hasn't played much this season, so it's hard to assess him at this point. Coming on three times as a sub in the league for a total of 23 minutes, his appearances appear to be late-game strategic moves to solidify the defense and waste time. He's also started Chivas' first two USOC games, and while he looked pretty frantic against the Carolina RailHawks, he helped Chivas get the win. Here's an interesting stat: every time Gordon has played this season for Chivas, they have won. I'm not sure that will get Gordon in the lineup, but you can't argue with the results so far.
Gordon's midseason grade: Incomplete
Jorge Villafana: The longest-serving Goat hasn't seen much action this season, playing six games in all competitions and only starting three. He's also moved back and forth between left back and left-sided midfielder in limited action, but he's played left back in all three starts this season, winning both of the U.S. Open Cup starts. He's looked serviceable but not spectacular, and it's unclear if he is going to become a defender or midfielder permanently, or whether his lot will be to move back and forth over the course of his career. With a sample size of three, it's hard to really assess sueno, so we'll leave it undetermined for the moment.
Villafana's midseason grade: Incomplete
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