At the end of his press conference Saturday following Chivas USA's 3-0 defeat to the Columbus Crew, coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola smacked his forehead hard to punctuate a point. It was surely a response that many fans shared as well after watching the match.
Columbus absolutely dominated the first half, taking around 75 percent of the possession, and spending nearly all of the time in Chivas' half of the field. Although Chivas USA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy made three saves in the first half, the thing that helped Chivas in the opening half was that the Crew's chances weren't that great. So although they played poorly, there was reason to believe the Goats could turn it around in the second half, and the introductions of Juan Agudelo and Miller Bolanos seemed to be a good omen. They did help tip the balance of possession in the second half, but Columbus had three distinct methods of successfully breaking down Chivas' defense in the second half, making the possibility of any points for the hosts out of reach.
In the 51st minute, Federico Higuain capped off an extended spell of build-up play with a shot from just outside the box to put the visitors up 1-0. The goal was so skilled that it seemed to catch both teams off guard as far as its accuracy. From there, the Crew began conceding possession in order to tighten up their defense, and the strategy worked, as Chivas had the bulk of their chances in the second half but couldn't seriously challenge Columbus goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.
The second goal came in the 88th minute, when Eddie Gaven's corner kick was hit past Kennedy with a cross-body shot by Josh Williams, sealing the result. The real insult to injury came in the 94th minute, when Dominic Oduro stole an errant pass away from Tristan Bowen at the edge of the Crew box, then raced down the field on the single-man counterattack, and beat a late charge by Dan Kennedy to slot the goal in the net. The beatdown may have come late, but it seemed sadly familiar from an early point in the game.
With that, let's go through some of the talking points coming out of this match:
Memories of 2012? I don't know, I heard so much about how different this team was, more attacking and with a pressing style to force opponents to make mistakes and give up the ball. I didn't see that tonight. Basically, it looked pretty close to the awful style we saw last year. The offense takes forever to get going, and the few chances that do come up are missed. Instead of making possession a priority, the team couldn't actually get the ball for most of the first half, so I suppose that was different. And the defense had numerous close shaves before the goals started flowing in.
Perhaps most disappointing, the pressing style was almost entirely nonexistent tonight. I saw it work to great effect in the preseason against the Colorado Rapids, but that sense of having packs of players going after the ball simply did not happen. I expressed the concern that the players may not be ready to last a full 90 minutes with the demanding press, and perhaps they were told to hold back by the coaches. If they weren't, what on earth happened? Either way, we can't necessarily say that Chelís' gameplan failed, because as he described it throughout the preseason, that plan was not executed in this match.
Starting lineup provided plenty of talking points: Before the game, I joked that I got 8 of 11 starters correct, a number I never got close to reaching under Robin Fraser. Still, there were a few surprises. Most notably, Joaquin Velazquez started in defense, and Tristan Bowen and Julio Morales were preferred to Bolaños and Agudelo.
Velazquez had a tough night, not really surprising for a 37 year old who hadn't played a first team match since 2010, and was making his MLS debut. Although the prospect of Chelís starting him wasn't a total shock, since he seems to be favoring "his" guys in defense, the capabilities of a guy at that age with that much rust in a new league has to raise some eyebrows. Don't get me wrong, Velazquez is not the fall guy for the whole team, but it still was a puzzling decision, in a logical sense anyway.
And on the attack, Bowen and Agudelo were extremely frustrated during the game, really giving the referee a hard time, and it seemed to take them out of their game. To be fair, I think both sides were allowed to tug and grab attackers pretty freely, and the Crew's physicality seemed a bit over the top to be permitted. But it happens sometimes, and players can't lose their heads. Meanwhile, Morales had by far the best chance of the first half, but his shot off a breakaway was just tipped by Gruenebaum to push it past the goal. Other than that, he didn't really set himself apart on the night.
Only two players (Kennedy and Laurent Courtois) started for Chivas in the opening match of 2012, and only four players (Kennedy, Courtois, Bowen and Eric Avila) had any MLS first team experience among the starters. Was there too much instability?
One down, 33 to go: It has been a long time since Chivas USA has won a competitive match. We know that losing can snowball and become an unshakable malady. But it is worth pointing out that this is just the first match of the season. Chelís vowed to change up the preparations next week ahead of the next match, and while you always want to start a season strong, there's still time to figure out what's working and what's not, and fix it. Certainly, this wasn't a good performance by Chivas, but the score only really got out of hand at the very end. That's not much consolation, but the team struggled and still made it to nearly 90 minutes down only 1-0.
Look at it this way: if the team plays like this in August, it's going to be a nightmare. But there are several months before we head to the point of no optimism. Let's take it a game at a time for now.
Looking ahead: Chivas host FC Dallas next Sunday. Dallas won 1-0 this weekend over the Colorado Rapids, and Chivas actually played them pretty well (in relative terms) in two late games last season. Like Columbus, Dallas certainly has talent, but they are also integrating some major pieces and could make for a decent opponent for Chivas. Of course, we'll have to see if Chivas can turn their play around 180 degrees in a week's time.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!