Mild mannered TFC player Nick Labrocca went to Chivas and turned into Superman, though trying the diving header when the ball's on the ground might not be the best idea.
Ahead of Saturday's game against Carson City's number one team Chivas USA, I got in touch with Alicia Ratterree of SBNation's Chivas blog The Goat Parade. After the jump Alicia answers my questions on which of Chivas' new players has had the most impact, and how TFC old boy Nick Labrocca and Canadian Ante Jazic are playing, and I also talk about TFC's expectations for the game and the season, as well as Ryan Johnson and Nick Soolsma. So, Chivas USA, how you doin'?
Waking The Red: So, to the casual observer, Chivas looked like they were going to be pretty hopeless again this year, then they went and won in Salt Lake and Portland. How the hell did that happen? Is that the real Chivas, or the one that's lost 3 games at home?
The Goat Parade: To be fair, I thought Chivas had a decent shot at a playoff spot heading into the season, but their early performances left many to question their quality. Although they have lost all of their home matches so far this season, each loss has been by a 1-0 scoreline, and they have not been substantially outplayed in any match. While beating RSL on the road was a surprise, even to those of us who watch Chivas very closely, it seemed justified considering how unlucky they had been otherwise this season. And the win this past weekend in Portland demonstrated not only that the RSL match wasn't a complete anomaly, but that this team is capable of battling back from a deficit to win on the road. All of this is to say that there are many games left in the season and by no means can Chivas be given a playoff berth at this point, but I think there are signs that they can make a significant improvement over the course of an entire season, and prove the casual observers wrong.
WTR: Chivas seemed to make plenty of moves in the off season, who were the most important signings, and how are they fitting in with the team?
TGP: You are absolutely right - there was major turnover in the Chivas roster during the offseason. And the moves are ongoing, as the Goats traded their 4th choice center back, David Junior Lopes, to the Galaxy for Paolo Cardozo this week. But there have been a couple of players who have really made a difference so far this season. First, center back Rauwshan McKenzie was signed in the offseason after being out of contract. He never got much of a chance in his previous MLS stops with RSL and Kansas City, and there were questions of what he could bring to Chivas. But his play in the preseason and an injury to another new defender, John Valencia, gave McKenzie the opportunity to demonstrate himself with the first team, and he has been excellent. At this point, it looks like he has a starting spot wrapped up for the foreseeable future.
The other new player who has been really good so far is Oswaldo Minda, a midfielder from Ecuador signed in the offseason. Don't be surprised if you grow to hate Minda over the course of the match Saturday - he seems like a holding midfielder who plays the "pest" role very well. Minda's still adjusting to the league, but his ballwinning skills have been excellent, and he has been able to dictate the play in the midfield with his physicality. He already has three yellow cards, so he plays on the edge of smart and reckless play, but the best teams in the league have a player who does what Minda's done so far. It seems like a very smart signing thus far.
WTR: Nick LaBrocca. All star! what? Has he continued his form this year. Also, with an eye on the World Cup Qualifiers, how's Ante Jazic looking?
TGP: LaBrocca is one of the most important Chivas players since his trade from TFC, no doubt, but he had something of an offensive slump during the second half of last season, and in the first few matches of this season he was playing more like a holding midfielder than an attacking midfielder. But he has shown signs of coming back into form and adjusting to the additional attention on him after his All-Star selection last season. He's been directly involved in two of the team's three goals on the season, including his winner against the Timbers last week. He also served as a captain for a match this season, and deservedly so - it could be an indication of what might be a permanent role in the future.
Meanwhile, I think Jazic has been excellent so far this season, continuing the form of his career year in 2011. In fact, I wrote following the last match that I thought he was the only Chivas player who played consistently well for a full 90 minutes, and he was the best defender in the first half, when the rest of the backline looked very shaky. I think Jazic's form means he should definitely be in the mix for the national team in this next round of World Cup qualifying. There's no reason why Canada shouldn't make use of the Indian summer of Jazic's career.
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TGP: Toronto FC has had a rocky start to the MLS season. With their CCL run ended and a rivalry match behind them, do you expect TFC to rebound against Chivas this week and demonstrate the improvement many have predicted for them heading into the season? Or are the issues deeper than fixture congestion and related distractions?
WTR: Do TFC need to rebound against Chivas? Absolutely, the season's already getting away from us and we're barely a month in. Do I expect them to? Well, let's just say I'm running very low on optimism right now. Fixture congestion and distraction are factors, but yes the issues are a lot lot deeper. Right now, until a couple of injuries fully clear up we don't have a squad capable of consistently playing the 4-3-3 that Aron Winter would prefer. The main problem last year was in defence, and so we signed 2 international Centre Backs in the off season to fix that problem. Unfortunately, Ecuadorian Geovanny Caicedo didn't make it through pre-season before leaving by 'mutual consent' and Chilean Miguel Aceval has slowly and clumsily played himself back to the bench. That leaves the defence in pretty much the same shape it ended last season in, except without Torsten Frings to bring a bit of calm and order. There's talk of Frings coming back, but I'd be very surprised to see him in this game, and with Logan Emory suspended that probably means you will see Aceval back with Ty Harden in the middle of defence. If you've got any speedy forwards, they should enjoy themselves with that pairing.
To help the defence out, we've had to go with a very defensively focused midfield, which tends to leave the forwards a bit stranded, which means they've also been struggling. Danny Koevermans did finally get off the mark last week so hopefully that's a sign of good things to come. Eventually we will improve, but probably not to the point that some people expected before the season started, and I very much doubt it will happen this weekend.
TGP: It seems Ryan Johnson has been a bright spot so far for Toronto. What does he bring to the TFC attack, and do you think this will be a breakout season for him? Also, is there another player who has acquitted himself well so far?
WTR: Johnson had a great pre season and start to the season, looking dynamic and a real goal threat, scoring in both legs against L.A and then in the MLS opener at Seattle. He's more about speed and effort than skill, but he also has a tremendous vertical leap. A few times he's been able to drift off to the back post, and then get up for and accurately head in a deep cross, absolutely posterising Tommy Meyer to score that way against L.A. Unfortunately, he's played every minute of every game so far, and while playing at Centre Forward or Attacking Midfield, he's taken a lot of punishing fouls, and so the last few games has looked tired and sore, which really diminishes that whole speed and dynamism thing. He'll have a good season but I doubt it'll be called a breakout , I'd predict 8-10 goals for him.
There aren't that many players having great years so far for TFC, but one who's surprised many is Right Winger Nick Soolsma. He doesn't have the pace you'd expect from a winger, but he's got a few good moves and a very good change of pace from slow to medium and back, that more often than not is good enough to create space for a cross. He improved through the second half of last season, and has kept that going this year to be one of our most dependable and creative players so far.
TGP: What are the expectations for TFC Saturday? Is a win a necessity or will any result be satisfactory? And what are the expectations surrounding the team for 2012?
WTR: "All we are saaaay-ing, is give us a goal." We're not quite at that stage of desperation, but after 4 straight league losses, and 0 goals in 2 home games so far, it's not far off it. A win is definitely seen as a necessity at this point as the season's going off the rails fast, and all but the hardcore are closer to apathy than anger after 5 straight years of this, and if the poor form continues much longer, the crowds will just continue to dwindle. Having said that, I doubt there's many people expecting a victory on Saturday unless Torsten Frings is back and instantly at his best. Hopefully management will resist the temptation to rush him back though until he is actually fully fit.
Expectations for the season were relatively high to start the season, especially after what seemed like a stunning defeat of the Galaxy (now, LA's MLS form has exposed that as not really that great of an achievment). Torsten Frings' injury has put paid to that and exposed TFC as a team woefully lacking in depth, without even one reliable Centre Back (though Adrian Cann will also be returning soon, unreasonable hopes are now being placed on him to right the ship) and without the skill to play the way Aron Winter wants them to. Expectations have now been reduced. People still want to at least make the playoffs, and most people still think we damn well should be making the playoffs, after giving Winter a pass on last year as a rebuild, but people are beginning to realise that we're probably not going to even do that again this year. I just hope it doesn't get bad enough that they have to fire Winter and start again, again.
Thanks Alicia, and best of luck to Chivas for the rest of the year after Saturday, may you remain the best team in Carson.