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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Chivas USA Coach Robin Fraser ready for opener

Team has had a big makeover since finishing near the bottom of Major League Soccer standings last season.

March 18, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

The day is here, the one Robin Fraser mentally circled on his career calendar, oh, about 18 years ago when he obtained his coaching license.

On Saturday night at 7:30, when Chivas USA takes the field for its Major League Soccer season opener against Sporting Kansas City in Carson, Fraser finally begins putting that hard-earned bit of paper to real use.

The former U.S. national team player and five-time MLS all-star has abundant coaching experience, most recently as assistant at Real Salt Lake, but he will now be in charge of his first competitive game as a full-fledged, the-buck-stops-here professional head coach.

Is he excited? Nervous? Worried? Confident? None of the above? All of the above?

"I've gotten more excited as the time has drawn nearer," Fraser, 44, said after Friday morning's practice at the Home Depot Center. "I'm not an excitable person anyway, but I'm definitely excited about the dawn of a new era here.

"I think that the players have put in a tremendous amount of work. I think we're not where we will be in the end, which is obviously to be expected, but we've made some progress and we're excited to be playing real games."

Saturday's game is the first of 34 in the regular season for Chivas USA, which has undergone a significant facelift since finishing the 2010 season at the bottom of the heap in the Western Conference and next-to-last in MLS as a whole.

Fraser and top assistant/sidekick Greg Vanney have rebuilt and refocused the team. There are no fewer than 12 new players on the roster, 13 if you include winger Francisco "Panchito" Mendoza, who returns after a two-year stint in the Mexican league.

Among the newcomers are New Zealand World Cup players Simon Elliott and Andrew Boyens; U.S. internationals Jimmy Conrad and Heath Pearce, and Venezuela international and three-time MLS Cup winner Alejandro Moreno.

Also new are goalkeeper Sergio Arias, an Under-17 World Cup winner with Mexico in 2005; a pair of attack-minded South Americans in winger/forward Marco Mondaini of Argentina and forward Victor Estupinan of Ecuador, and a hotshot prospect out of the college ranks in Akron defender Zarek Valentin.

With the remake complete for the moment, Fraser is quietly confident.

"To be honest, we feel pretty good, but there's still some uncertainty," he said.

"I think with a new group getting together, first game, you're always going to have some jitters. We're trying to work our way through some injuries, but I think the group that will be out there will be pretty solid."

Fraser and Vanney have instilled a new attitude and installed a new formation, a 4-1-4-1 system featuring a defensive midfielder in front of a four-man back line and four midfielders behind a lone striker.

The outside midfielders — most likely Mendoza and Mondaini — will be the more attack-oriented of the four.

The preseason was used to test the system and the results proved mixed, with the main shortcoming being an inability to put the ball in the net. In six scrimmages against MLS opposition, Chivas USA went 2-3-1 but scored only two goals while giving up five.

"I think the goals will come from more sustained possession in the opponent's half," Fraser said Friday. "Out of that we'll find good opportunities. I think the goals are going to come from a variety of people.

"We don't have a Carlos Ruiz or a Taylor Twellman," he said in reference to two of the league's all-time most prolific strikers, "but I think we'll get goals from a lot of our attacking players, whether they're forwards or midfielders."

As for the formation, a less frequently seen variant on the traditional 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formations, Fraser said it was a matter of putting in place a system suited to the players he has.

"I think for now it's what we're going to go with," he said. "I came in thinking we were going to play a 4-4-2 and a diamond [midfield], but I think our personalities are more suited to playing in a 4-1-4-1. We've been pretty solid defensively out of it, and we're getting better in terms of creating [scoring] chances out of it."

The onus, though, will fall on the lone striker, whether it is Moreno, with 46 goals in 246 MLS games, last year's team-leading goal scorer Justin Braun, with 17 goals in 71 career games for Chivas, or newcomer Estupinan, who predicted a 30-goal season for himself before reality hit and he realized his new-kid-on-the-block place in the pecking order.

All indications Friday were that it will be Moreno, who won titles with the Galaxy in 2002, with the Houston Dynamo in 2006 and with the Columbus Crew in 2008, leading the charge up front for Chivas, with Braun and Estupinan waiting in the wings if the goals don't come.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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