Chivas USA striker Juan Pablo Angel battles for the ball agianst the New… (Mike Stobe / Getty Images )
One team's roster features three of the most recognizable soccer players in the world. The other team's starting lineup might as well be in the witness protection program.
But while the star-studded Galaxy has spent most of the Major Soccer League season in a free fall, going five weeks without a win, its co-inhabitant at the Home Depot Center is headed in the other direction.
Chivas USA went into Saturday night's match with the visiting Seattle Sounders having earned points in three consecutive games, the latest being Wednesday's 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls at Red Bulls Arena. But if you ask Chivas USA Coach Robin Fraser, the most impressive thing about that streak isn't so much the results as it is who those results have come against — the Western Conference-leading San Jose Earthquakes, the defending league champion Galaxy and the Eastern Conference-leading Red Bulls.
"We played San Jose when they were in first place. The Galaxy is the Galaxy. And New York … obviously being in first place they're in good form," said Fraser, whose team has a win and two ties in its last three matches and hasn't lost since May 4..
Playing up to the competition has been a theme all season for Chivas. The first of its wins came against Real Salt Lake, which was unbeaten at the time. And two of its losses were 1-0 decisions, one against a then-unbeaten Sporting Kansas City and the other a stoppage-time defeat to the Houston Dynamo, an MLS Cup finalist last season.
If MLS took strength of schedule into account when awarding playoff berths, Chivas would already be in.
"We've had several very difficult tests and this will only make us better as the season goes on," Fraser said.
With four wins in 12 games, Fraser's team is already slightly better than it was at this point in each of the last two seasons, when it failed to make the postseason. For newcomer Danny Califf, acquired earlier this month in a trade with the Red Bulls, turning that newfound success into confidence in the locker room could help Chivas get back to the playoffs.
"There's a ton of potential," Califf said. "We just have to believe we can win. The big problem so far is giving up late goals."
Indeed, six of the 13 goals Chivas has conceded this season have come in the 82nd minute or later — including three in stoppage time. Take away three of those and Chivas picks up five more points in the standings, vaulting to fourth in the Western Conference.
"The belief that we can actually play and compete and win games is the last piece to the puzzle," Califf said.
The next two months could be key to completing that puzzle. Beginning with Saturday's match with Seattle, Chivas plays five games against teams that entered the weekend a combined 26-22-14. And six of the next seven are at home, where Chivas is a conference-worst 1-5.
Whether it can turn things around at home could ultimately determine whether Chivas is a playoff contender or, like the struggling Galaxy, simply a pretender.
"We want to be an impact team," Chivas USA General Manager Jose Domene said. "We're in the second-largest media market in the U.S. And we're not only fighting for the playoffs, we're fighting for fans in L.A. And soccer fans in L.A."
"We want to be an MSL team that's a winner for a long time."