More than a few preseason predictions tabbed Chivas USA as a possible MLS Cup finalist, but seldom in 2008 has it showed the stuff of a worthy contender. Last night at Home Depot Center, the red-and-while looked the part.
Sacha Kljestan and Justin Braun scored four minutes apart in the first half, and Claudio Suarez and Jesse Marsch led a determined, man-down defensive effort that kept Chicago at bay and beat the Fire, 2-0, to tie Houston for second place in the Eastern Conference with 17 points at 5-6-2.
Former Fire striker Ante Razov, still recovering from the serious knee injury that sidelined him for the final month of the 2007 season, set up both goals with pin-point passes to Kljestan in the 22nd minute and Braun in the 26th . Kljestan controlled a Razov chip on the right flank and zipped past Diego Gutierrez to drill a shot from a sharp angle inside the far post; Braun raced into the area to tuck away a low ball that Razov had centered from the left side.
A pair of Chad Barrett misses early in the match negated an initial period controlled by Chicago. He pushed a centering pass wide
from point-blank range, and shot into the side-netting after rounding keeper Brad Guzan on a breakaway. The Fire flickered and seldom tested Guzan despite playing 11-against-10 for the entire second half.
Referee Baldomero Toledo sent off Paulo Nagamura in first-half stoppage time 13 minutes after cautioning him for committing a series of bad fouls. Nagamura foolishly hacked Barrett during a midfield scramble and Toledo pulled out yellow and then red.
But the Fire failed to take advantage, as Chivas USA shackled Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chris Rolfe and Justin Mapp with concentrated, coordinated defensive movement. Coach Preki aligned his nine field players in a 4-3-2 formation, and late in the match pulled off Razov for midfielder Jorge Flores to ride out the final minutes. Chicago couldn't move the ball quickly and sharply enough to find the open man, and a few free kicks produced no real breakthroughs.
Two Chivas USA veterans recently returned to the lineup added polish and poise. Swiss midfielder Raphael Wicky, playing on the left side, linked up well with left back Francisco Mendoza and supplied crisp balls to his fellow midfielders and frontrunners Razov and Braun. Jonathan Bornstein replaced Wicky at halftime and helped subdue Rolfe, whose few touches were usually limited to evasive maneuvers. Marsch, another former Fire member, squelched Chicago's midfield with sharp tackling and also fired a shot narrowly wide.
Suarez, paired in central defense with Bobby Burling, marshaled a resilient defensive unit that repelled crosses as well as balls played down the flanks, and limited Chicago to just one shot on goal. Mendoza, normally a left midfielder, defended doggedly and slid inside effectively from his left-back position.
Right back Carey Talley also kept his corner secure as the Chivas USA players consistently flowed back rapidly into defensive positions once the ball turned over. Guzan collected a few difficult crosses cleanly and commanded his penalty area confidently.
With striker Maykel Galindo sidelined again for sports hernia surgery and Aleck, Razov and Braun are slowly evolving into an effective attacking pair. (Another striker, Alecko Eskandarian, had groin surgery yesterday and will be out six more weeks.) Kljestan has grafted work rate, range, and aerial prowess to his crafty attacking skills, and Burling, a towering presence at 6-foot-5, has quietly grown game-by-game into a capable defender to replace the injured Shavar Thomas.
Chivas USA dominated opponents at home last year (10-1-4) while finishing atop the Western Conference; by beating the Fire it raised its mark at HDC this season to 4-3 and showed the first real glimmers of MLS Cup material.
June 19 in Carson, Calif.
Chivas USA 2 Chicago 0.
Goals: Kljestan (Razov, Nagamura) 26,Braun (Razov, Mendoza) 32.
Chivas USA - Guzan, Talley, Burling, Suarez, Mendoza, Kljestan, Marsch, Nagamura, Wicky (Bornstein, 46), Braun (Flores, 78), Razov (Harris, 66).
Chicago - Busch, Prideaux (Herron, 58), Brown (Nyarko, 77), Soumare, Gutierrez, Thorrington, Blanco, Pause, Mapp, Barrett, Rolfe (Frankowski, 68).
Yellow Cards: Chivas USA - Nagamura 33; Chicago - Thorrington 57, Blanco 63, Gutierrez 89.
Red Card: Chivas USA - Nagamura 46+.
Referee: Baldomero Toledo.