Set Piece Failures Have Doomed Chivas USA

Ned Dishman - Getty Images

Well, we sit at the homestretch of the 2012 season, and Chivas USA is in bad shape. The uncertainty on and off the field has resulted in a team that has scored fewer goals than the league's leading scorer (yes, really), as well as a league position that is only one place off the Wooden Spoon "award." Clearly, there are a lot of problems surrounding Chivas at the moment, but one component that has been largely ignored has been Chivas' set piece competence.

There have been moments when Chivas have been able to score off set pieces this season. Miller Bolanos played a corner kick against Toronto FC that led to a Oswaldo Minda goal. Laurent Courtois took the free kick that led to Jose Correa's winner at the death in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. Blair Gavin got the ball rolling on Juan Pablo Angel's goal against the New York Red Bulls off a corner. Cesar Romero set up an Alejandro Moreno goal against Montreal via Juan Agudelo's deflected shot off a corner. Ben Zemanski sent a long free kick that Danny Califf scored the winner on a header against the Portland Timbers. And Nick LaBrocca got a corner kick into the right spot for Shalrie Joseph to score against the New England Revolution.

Despite these successes, three of which were game-winning goals, Chivas have been awful on the whole at set piece delivery this season. There are several reasons for this.

The biggest issue is that there is no consistency in set piece service. Bolanos dominated corner kick service early in the season, but hasn't taken one in months. Ryan Smith has taken corners and free kicks off and on during the season. Courtois occasionally gets on the set pieces. Zemanski has taken one here and there, as has Peter Vagenas and Gavin when he was with the team. Oswaldo Minda started taking free kicks at one point, then stopped after a few games. Juan Pablo Angel has taken close-range free kicks. Romero usually takes corners when he's on the field, which isn't a lot. Recently, LaBrocca's been taking most of the corners and some of the free kicks.

Statistically, of Chivas' 27 goals in all competitions this season, six have come off set pieces, four from corners. Here's the breakdown in table format:

Source of goals Number in 2012 Percent of total goals
Corner kicks 4 14.8
Free kicks 2 7.4
Penalties 4 14.8
Run of play 17 63

Ok, so a little more than a third of the goals scored this season have come off corners, free kicks, and penalties combined. Although a penalty is not a guarantee of a goal, the odds of scoring on a penalty are far greater on a PK than other dead ball situations, and to their credit Chivas have converted all of their penalties this year. So that leaves a little over 20 percent of goals scored in all competitions from corner kicks and free kicks.

It is difficult to find a benchmark of what would constitute a "good" percentage of goals scored off set pieces because each team is built differently. Some teams use set pieces as a core component of their attacking arsenal, while others don't spend much time focusing on them. Great teams can be great, poor, or something in the middle at set piece conversion.

But with a team that is so deficient in goals scored, like Chivas, set pieces are something that should be prioritized, as it is something that can be practiced and honed in training. Unlike goals from the run of play, which have more of an element of spontaneity than set pieces (although those can't be completely controlled either, I realize), teams can really work on putting the ball in a given location, playing to the strengths of certain players, and figure out what will work for the players on the field.

The biggest problem is that Chivas clearly don't have an ace set piece specialist on the roster. If they did, he would have emerged already. Clearly, it is much more difficult to build an attack around dead ball situations if there's nobody to control those plays. That's why players like Brad Davis are so valuable, because they can give their teammates good service and really tally goals from set pieces. As a result, it is clear that Chivas probably couldn't expect a player to become the next Brad Davis this season, no matter how hard he worked.

But the instability and frequent lineup changes certainly didn't help matters. Gavin is no longer with the team, so he obviously can't contribute to the Goats anymore. Courtois and Zemanski seem to have been hit by lightning once, and I'm not sure they can really become go-to guys on set pieces. Romero seems like a player with a knack for hitting good corners, and he and Bolanos are small players who probably wouldn't be missing from the mixer if they took corners. I think of the players on the roster, either of them would be my choice.

That leaves LaBrocca, who's been taking set pieces for the past couple of months. Here's the problem: his service is almost always terrible. Yes, he set up Joseph's first goal against the Revs, but that was pretty incredible, really, if you have watched the rest of his set piece distribution. I realize he transformed his game for a spell in 2011 when nobody else on the roster was scoring, and it shows he can adapt to the situation. But I argued about a month ago that LaBrocca's offensive spurt mostly came in the first half of 2011, and he's struggled to provide any consistent offensive production ever since. I suppose moving him into set piece distribution was a strategy to try and get him back into the attack, and considering nobody else had stepped up, I suppose it makes some sense on paper. But on the field? He's not very good, and every time he takes a corner, the opponent can effectively relax, because Chivas won't get a solid chance.

With five games to go in the season, Chivas can't be expected to find a player who will be competent at taking set pieces, but they've wasted an opportunity to scratch out goals off dead balls over the course of the season. This team has many needs heading into the offseason, but somebody who can provide good set piece service has to be one of the priorities.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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