Tactical Talk: When Squad Rotation Goes Too Far

COMMERCE CITY, CO - AUGUST 18: Riley plays every game. He's just about the only one on Chivas who does. (Photo by Trevor Brown, Jr./Getty Images)

One of the truisms of Robin Fraser's time in charge as coach of Chivas USA is that the lineup will change from game to game. It appears that he overhauls the lineup every time out, but I did some digging to see exactly what Fraser's squad rotation has looked like this season. Here's the deal: Fraser has only used the same lineup for consecutive matches twice this season, for the second and third games of the season (against the Vancouver Whitecaps at home and Real Salt Lake on the road) and the 15th and 16th games (against the Montreal Impact at home and FC Dallas on the road). Does the turnover reveal any patterns?

In a word, no. I've broken down the number of changes from game to game and the record for each number after the jump, and besides the four losses that corresponds to two changes in the lineup from the previous game, nothing really jumps out. Despite that, the consistent turnover probably has some implications about the course of Chivas' season.

First, it must be noted that squad rotation is a necessary part of any season. 11 players cannot be expected to play all 34 games in a season, simply due to the number of games and fixture congestion that pops up during some stretches of the season. Furthermore, injuries and suspensions, as well as national team call-ups, mean that a coach's hand is often forced to play a new lineup, even when he would want to keep a lineup intact. I haven't done a scientific study of this, so this should be taken anecdotally, but I would guess that Chivas have been rather fortunate in their injury issues this season compared to the rest of the league. They haven't been the luckiest team, but they haven't lost any player who has played this season for more than a couple of months, and the number of injuries all at once has never been catastrophic.

As for suspensions, only Oswaldo Minda has been suspended, and that's happened twice this season. And Minda and Ante Jazic have missed time in the lineup due to national team duty. The same could be said of Jorge Villafana, who missed the early part of the season while playing with the USMNT U23 team during the Olympic qualifying tournament, but considering the low number of games he's started, he probably wasn't going to start the matches he missed.

So squad rotation, injuries, suspensions and national team call-ups have forced Fraser to make adjustments in the lineup during the season.

Here are the numbers:

Changes from previous game Number of games Wins Losses Draws
0 2 1 0 1
1 1 0 1 0
2 6 2 4 0
3 4 1 2 1
4 3 1 0 2
5 3 1 1 1
6 2 1 0 1

As you can see, Fraser has had a range of zero to six changes in a lineup from the previous match. The distribution of the number of changes nearly follows a bell curve, with the majority of changes being in the 2-3 range. When making two or three changes, they've racked up six of their nine losses on the season, while making four to six changes has resulted in a solid 3-1-4 record.

The result is that there hasn't been an issue with making a large number of changes in the lineup. What's promising is that it appears the team is deep enough and able to move in and out of the lineup without largely disrupting the team's overall play.

The downside is that it appears there has not been enough players making a claim to a regular starting spot, and that's a problem. Ideally, a successful MLS team has about 15 quality starting-caliber players who remain motivated in the lineup, with the rest of the roster filled out with depth players who can step in when necessary to fill in and perform in the regular starters' absence. Based on their record and the patterns of Fraser's lineups, Chivas simply do not have enough starter-caliber players on the team.

First, Dan Kennedy and James Riley have played every match, and their starts are as good as guaranteed barring injury or suspension from here on out. I think Minda is the next most obvious player, and he's been the one whose absence has troubled the team more than anybody else this season. Ante Jazic has only missed time for rest and very minor injury, and considering his age, that makes sense. And Danny Califf has started every game since joining the team in May, so he seems automatic as well at this point.

Do you sense a trend? Three of the five places in goalkeeper and defense are essentially locks, and the fourth is more or less a lock. That leaves the second center back spot, and John Valencia has beaten out Rauwshan McKenzie lately. But might the stability of defense contribute to that unit's success in 2012? It seems like it, and it seems like Chivas has little work to do in the coming offseason on that part of the lineup.

Among the midfield and forwards, however, there's been very little stability beyond Minda and Nick LaBrocca. Chivas have a lot of options in those positions, but not enough players to distinguish themselves week in and week out. I've been arguing that the forward corps is good and has the potential to be productive, but the fact that Chivas have scored the fewest goals in the league makes that assertion difficult to maintain. Still, Fraser has not stuck with a forward or two with any consistency, and so a once-hot striker like Jose Correa has become ice cold in recent weeks. I think the inability of the strikers to establish a firm hierarchy, along with Fraser's inability to give any of the forwards consistent playing time, has been a problem. Forwards are confidence players, and it is tough to score regularly without confidence.

As a result, it seems squad rotation has not adversely affected Chivas as far as their record this season. But the most stable group has also been most successful, while the positions that have disappointed have had far more rotation from game to game. Whether the blame lies more with the players themselves and their inability to claim a place or with Fraser and his constant changes is unclear, but one thing is clear: expect more rotation in the Chivas lineup in 2012.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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