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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Chivas USA has a smart start to season

Chivas USA players' soccer intelligence drives the team in the right direction.

May 07, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Chivas USA's Ben Zemanski battles for control of the ball against Toronto FC 's Tony Tchani during an MLS game last month.
Chivas USA's Ben Zemanski battles for control of the ball against… (Chris Young / Associated…)

Even in defeat, Chivas USA is winning.

On Saturday, in an extraordinary game against Real Salt Lake in Utah, a Chivas team reduced to nine-against-11 for more than 50 minutes held its own against the quickest-thinking team in Major League Soccer.

That a goal scrambled past lunging goalkeeper Dan Kennedy by Canadian international midfielder Will Johnson a mere three minutes from the end ultimately brought about a 1-0 loss is irrelevant.

How Chivas played — and, more to the point, how intelligently it played — is rapidly developing into one of the more interesting story lines of the 2011 MLS season.

There are those who would argue that soccer intelligence can't be taught.

"That's what they say," said Chivas assistant coach Greg Vanney, "but I think there's soccer intelligence in some of our guys and it's just [a matter of] recognizing the spaces that they need to get into.

"So each week we prepare that way. Where are we going to be successful and what spaces do our guys need to get into? Then try to get them the ball. Ultimately, they have to make the decisions."

That's where soccer differs from other sports.

Unlike baseball, there are none of those invariably overweight coaches touching their noses, rubbing their bellies, sticking their finger in their ears, or sending any of the other weird signals to players who apparently are not smart enough to decide for themselves what to do.

Unlike basketball, there are none of those unnecessary timeouts — surely designed for no other reason than to insert commercials into telecasts — where players huddle around a coach who diagrams what they're supposed to be doing. Surely you would think the Lakers would know what to do if Phil Jackson and his assistants were not within a hundred miles of Staples Center?

Unlike football, where bulk and strength and in some cases speed is paramount, and where even headphones come into use, soccer is controlled by the players on the field. Why football even bothers with flesh-and-blood players is a mystery. Robots could do the same thing and at less cost.

Not to belabor the point, but soccer players are expected to do their own thinking, to make their own instantaneous decisions. It's a bit more cerebral. No, it's a lot more cerebral, and Chivas USA Coach Robin Fraser, along with Vanney, is showing just how pleasing to the eye a team that knows how to think can be.

Last weekend, in a 3-0 shutout of the New England Revolution, one goal in particular demonstrated the point, with the decisions made on the spot by two players making all the difference.

For midfielder Ben Zemanski, it was a matter of seeing a possibility and recognizing where to pass the ball.

"I just got the ball from Simon [Elliott] and took a look over my left shoulder and saw that the defender was going inside and I saw Ante [Jazic] overlapping and thought he could extend the ball down the line and get forward with it," Zemanski said. "So I played it to my left to Ante and let him get forward with it. Good things happened."

For forward Alejandro Moreno, it was a matter of being unpredictable and thereby outsmarting a defender.

"It was a good through ball by Ante," he said. "I believe the defender was expecting me to hold the ball up, as I do probably most of the time, but I felt him pretty close to me and I was able to turn him. Marcos [Mondaini] made a nice run into the box and I was able to find him and he finished it very well. It was an important goal for us."

Fraser, a patient perfectionist, admired it immensely.

"I thought it was a really, really well-crafted attack, a lot of good possession and good ideas," he said. "Maybe the key thing in that whole attack was Ben getting the ball in the middle with lots of pressure and calmly taking a first touch and playing a great ball out wide to Ante to keep the attack going. Then, from there, a lot of great combination play, a great service and a great finish.

"It just feels to me like we're maturing and we're moving forward. I think early in the year he [Zemanski] probably would have been a little more hectic on the ball, but he was so calm in executing what to the outside eye looks like a very routine pass but was key to that entire play."

Barely one-quarter into the MLS season, Chivas appears to be tracing an upward curve.

"We're very happy," Vanney said. "We know we have more steps to take, but we're proud of the guys. They've worked hard, and they've bought into what we're trying to accomplish."

New Zealand veteran Elliott agreed.

"It's hard work," he said. "There have been a lot of changes and turnover, and creating the culture and the environment that we want to create takes time and it takes work. It takes everyone. You can't just have one or two guys wanting it. You've got to have everyone wanting it.

"Are we there yet? No, but I think we're heading in the right direction."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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