Burling: Is the lone holdover in defense. - Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
With a whole new group, can the Goats play effective defense?
Throughout the entire preseason, Chivas USA have employed a three-man backline, something that has not been used in MLS in recent years. I've previously noted that teams in South America, Italy, and yes, Mexico (Club Tijuana won the Liga MX title last season with a three-man back line, using wingbacks to supplement the three defenders) are currently using three defender formations, and so it isn't a surprise that somebody would try it in MLS sooner or later. Of course, given the notion of stability and reluctance to rock the boat means MLS managers frequently run in a pack mentality. As a result, it isn't a surprise that an outsider like Jose Luis Sanchez Sola is taking the initiative to try something different.
In the preseason matches, Chelís has been playing a 3-5-2 (or perhaps a 3-2-3-2, if we're being really picky) but the emphasis has been on pressing opponents and recovering lost balls as quickly as possible. When previously asked about the three-defender formation, Chelís claimed that he had 11 defenders on the field, and an ethic in which every player is working on offense and defense certainly sounds like a great plan.
Obviously, there are two main questions regarding Chivas' defense heading into the season. First, can a formation that uses just three defenders be effective (i.e. keep enough goals from being allowed to get the team points) in MLS? And second, does Chivas have a good enough defense to make it work?
In regards to the first question, I think opponents are going to have to make a different gameplan to deal with the fact that Chivas will have more players pushed up the field. However, I would imagine that the way to try and break the three-man backline would be to throw numbers forward as well. For example, one team that has done that exceptionally well in recent seasons has been the Seattle Sounders, who of course put up the most goals on Chivas in 2012 (and frankly, that's quite a distinction). With forwards, withdrawn forwards, attacking midfielders, wingers, and even fullbacks getting involved in the attack, the intention will be to overwhelm Chivas defensively, and either catch them on a counterattack or wait for a moment of indiscipline when the team defense will break down.
Most likely, the counterattack will be the biggest threat for the team this year. While Chivas completely dismantled the Colorado Rapids in preseason play with a counterattack of their own, the team has to have not only the skill but the fitness to be able to make it up and down the field for 90+ minutes.
And that's where the second question comes in. Although the entire roster has been made over, save the goalkeepers, there are some returning players, mostly up top but in midfield as well. The only holdover(s) on the defense from last season is Bobby Burling, who again, only officially joined the club last year in August, and possibly Jorge Villafana, depending on how Chelís plays him (my guess: as a wide midfielder, playing a wingback-style position). Burling brings three games of 2012 first team experience over with him - three!
Now, just because they don't have 2012 MLS experience doesn't necessarily mean Chivas' defenders will be bad. Obviously, like Burling, Carlos Borja has returned to the Chivas USA fold, and Steve Purdy also has MLS experience. The other defender currently on the roster, Mario de Luna, has a fair amount of experience in Mexico, and some Chivas USA fans I've spoken with believe he can be a difference maker in MLS.
Assuming Walter Vilchez comes aboard, he also has considerable experience in Mexico and Latin America, and at 31, could be the veteran presence on the team, as there are few players over 30 on the 2013 vintage of Chivas USA.
As for the other additions, it seems pretty likely that most of the trialists this preseason will be signed, but we will have to wait and see who actually signs the contract and makes it official. As a result, the defense looks untenably shallow at this point, with only four guys on the roster, and having a backup of one won't fly. There should be more, but the position may continue to feel pretty shaky, and the players who do get the minutes will have to step up immediately. Can they do it individually? As a collective?
The 2012 Chivas USA team was ultimately weak in all aspects of the game. This 2013 group already looks vastly superior in attack - they may not score three goals a game, but the goals should not be nearly as hard to come by this season. But the defense has to be the looming question mark heading into the season. Can the Goats make the three-man backline work, and are the players on the roster good enough to hack it as a group in MLS?
What do you think? Leave a comment below!