We continue our series at the midpoint of the 2012 season by looking at the most crowded position for Chivas USA, midfielder. The Goats have played 12 midfielders this season, so you know there's been a great deal of variety. Heading into the season, midfield was touted as the deep position for the squad, and while Robin Fraser clearly likes having the variety in front of him, it can be argued that some players have stepped up more than others, and almost nobody has acquitted himself as well overall as the defenders or goalkeepers to this point in the season. Here's where the mixed bag starts coming, and while there are some good players in the mix, the reality is they need to get better, and fast, if Chivas want to make the next step up in the their development this season.
Oswaldo Minda: Although the club is still going through some growing pains, it seems Robin Fraser and Jose Domene hit their stride this past offseason in scouting and signing players. In addition to bringing in Rauwshan McKenzie and trading for James Riley, then trading for Danny Califf during the season, and bringing in Jose Correa and Juan Agudelo, the signing of Oswaldo Minda has transformed Chivas' midfield. A defensive midfielder who can control the game from just in front of the defense and help put out fires, Minda has been a revelation in his first season in MLS. As I have been arguing for some time, all of the best teams in the league have a very good-to-excellent defensive midfielder who can play the role of the "pest" to opponents. Minda does that to a "T." He is great at slowing attackers down by offering small fouls time after time, until they get fed up. He is also a good passer, but his passing ability seems to be inversely proportional to how close he is to the opponent's goal.
Minda's Midseason Grade: A-
Ben Zemanski: He was slowed for a stretch by a knee injury, and heading into the season it appeared he wouldn't be able to crack the starting lineup with any regularity, but to the surprise of few who watch Chivas consistently, Zemanski is one of Chivas' most consistent midfielders and has played his way into the starting lineup. His vaunted versatility has served him well, as he's played on the right, in the middle, and set back as a defensive midfielder this season. He hasn't contributed to the scoring, though, and while I don't think he'll ever be somebody to count on for goals, I'm a little surprised he hasn't got one yet. His primary role, however, is defensive, and providing box-to-box coverage, something he's done well again this season. It would seem that would make him surplus in light of Minda's emergence, but the versatility Zemanski provides gives him an edge in cracking the lineup more often than not. In the second half of the season, it will be interesting to see how much he plays, and whether he can step up his game even more. So far so good, but Zemanski could be an under-the-radar star in the making if he can continue developing.
Zemanski's Midseason Grade: B
Peter Vagenas: Continuing the defense-first midfielder trend here, Vagenas was a controversial addition to the team, but he's been very important in limited action. With the emergence of Minda in MLS, the great news is that Vagenas has been deployed as I anticipated, as an able back-up for Minda. With the Ecuadorean's tendency to pick up yellow card suspensions, he needs a capable back-up, and Vagenas has played well. The veteran has also done a good job providing on-field leadership to the team, filling a vacuum that existed early in the season. Now, it looks like Califf has stepped into the breach, but all around this team needs more vocal leaders. Vagenas has also been key in Chivas' U.S. Open Cup run, and he's played better than I think most would have expected in the month of June. As long as the team isn't counting on him to play game in and game out, he's a good squad member, and it looks like everything is going to plan so far with Vagenas.
Vagenas' Midseason Grade: B-
Nick LaBrocca: Last season, LaBrocca was a revelation, especially in the first half, when he put the attack on his back and had his best season in MLS while playing a new position. This season is a little different story. He's been playing farther back this year, with the expectation that the new offensive weapons the Goats picked up in the last year can get the goals. But I think it is also safe to say that the second-half slump LaBrocca suffered in 2011 has continued. He still does the dirty work on the defensive side of the ball, and he's great for providing the pass or two before the assist. But the goal output from 2011 looks to have been a one-year aberration in his career. Although I don't think he should be held to that standard from now on if that's not the kind of player he is, I would have hoped that he could have chipped in with at least a couple more goals to this point, with only the winner against the Portland Timbers being in his tally for 2012. The team is struggling to score, but there's plenty of blame to go around. A pretty good start to 2012 for "Nick the Quick," but I'd like to see more from him.
LaBrocca's Midseason Grade: C+
Ryan Smith: I have already written about the great attributes that Smith has brought to Chivas USA this season. He presents a different component to Chivas' attack and wing play that they did not have in 2011, and there have been times in which he's looked like the best player on the field. But like many players on this team, he's often been inconsistent, and that's lessened his overall impact. His performance against the Portland Timbers was of course the high point of his season so far, as he set up both goals in a come-from-behind victory in Portland. But with the team's scoring woes, those two assists are the only ones he's contributed this season. As I've already mentioned with LaBrocca, the blame for the scoring issues is significant enough to go around on the team, but Smith's performance in 2010 for Kansas City indicates that he has more he can offer. Overall, the move to bring in Smith has been good, but hopefully he can step it up in terms of goals and especially assists in the second half of the season.
Smith's Midseason Grade: C+
Miller Bolanos: I think Bolanos has been one of my favorite new players for Chivas this season. He is fun to watch, as he has been deployed mostly on the right in a 4-3-3 formation, and he seems this close to getting a goal each game. He has two assists on the season, one from a corner kick against Toronto FC and the other in Jose Correa's first goal for the Goats against the San Jose Earthquakes. He has been slowed by a hamstring injury of late, but I wonder if Robin Fraser really trusts him game in and game out. To me, he seems to be a cut above any of the other players in that position, and shows signs of promise that nobody else on the team has. But that is indeed the issue. You can probably sense a trend, that Bolanos is another attacking player who seems like he should have more production at this point. With his early corner kick service successful, his injury means the player taking them is up for grabs once again. And with his technical skill and the number of close calls, it seems like he should have at least a couple of goals by this point. I hope he heals up and we see plenty of him on the field contributing in the second half of the season, but like many others, he needs to step it up.
Bolanos' Midseason Grade: C
Laurent Courtois: He had a bit of a slow start to the season, but he's picked it up recently, and when Chivas needed it. Although his form hasn't really come through in the league, and he has no goals or assists to this point in league play, he has two key assists in the U.S. Open Cup run, when he stepped up and provided. Although you could argue that the quality of opponent hasn't been as strong in the Open Cup, the pressure of a knockout competition often throws the level of the opponent out of the window. In particular, Courtois sent in the free kick in the box late in injury time against the Charlotte Eagles in the quarterfinal round that got Chivas the late winner. So he is a key player in Chivas' season no matter what happens from here on out. That said, I need to repeat the mantra and say that Courtois needs to become more consistent and set up some goals in the league as well. If even a few of these guys chip in, what a difference it could make for the team's attack and goal tally.
Courtois' Midseason Grade: C
Blair Gavin: We've been told since he was drafted how good Gavin was, and while he does win mustache of the year in a landslide even at the midway point, he's not produced to expectations at any point in his career so far, including 2012. He has one assist, on Juan Pablo Angel's wonder goal against the New York Red Bulls, and that's it. To be fair, Gavin has still not played as much as most of the rest of the midfielders, and so he is still finding it difficult in even getting regular minutes. That said, considering the hype and the expectations that have surrounded him since entering the league, it doesn't look like he can become the game-changing central attacking midfielder many expected coming out of college. I still hope he can put it together, but it seems unlikely at this point.
Gavin's Midseason Grade: C-
Paolo Cardozo: Here's what I feared when Cardozo got traded to Chivas early in the season: all style, no substance. Here's what I've found so far in Cardozo's Chivas career: all style, no substance. Although he is coming off his best performance for the team in a 0-0 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the scoreline should be ongoing proof about Cardozo's actual production. He hasn't seen consistent playing time either so far this season, but it seems when Fraser starts him, he keeps him on the whole game. But the Uruguayan hasn't notched a goal or assist in two seasons in the league. Until he does, and does on a somewhat regular basis, I remain skeptical.
Cardozo's Midseason Grade: D+
Jorge Villafana: He's played spot duty this season as a left-sided midfielder, but the bulk of his (limited) time has come in defense. He did come off the bench into the midfield and provide the game-winning assist to Juan Pablo Angel against the Montreal Impact, but since he's played so little, no concrete assessment.
Villafana's Midseason Grade: Incomplete
What do you think? Leave a comment below!