Sharp moves pushed Chivas USA to the top of the Major League Soccer standings — a remarkable achievement for a team battered by injuries.
Fans of Chivas USA spent a nervous offseason wondering how their team could possibly address several pressing issues.
Defender ClaudioSuarez had retired, depriving the team of not only its spiritual leader but its most visible ties to Mexico and parent club Guadalajara. Last year, MLS had rebuffed an effort from Glasgow Celtic to buy midfielder Sacha Kljestan, but with further bids expected this season, could the team bolster its midfield in case he did depart? Injuries had decimated the team for a second straight season, it had faltered in the conference semifinals to former league doormat Real Salt Lake, and there were holes in the lineup. During the season, keeper Brad Guzan had left for Aston Villa, leaving veteran Zach Thornton and youngster Dan Kennedy to fill a huge void.
Head coach Preki and staff not only made moves, they made all of the right ones. Right back Mariano Trujillo and forward Eduardo Lillingston arrived from Mexico; Gerson Mayen, Chukwudi Chijindu and Bojan Stepanovic joined the midfield corps; and Suarez reversed his decision and rejoined the team. With a string of amazing saves, Thornton conjured up memories of his five All-Star seasons with the Fire.
Rather than just finding replacements, Chivas USA has found pieces that fit snugly into the system and the organization.
"There's not a whole lot of egos and superstars on this team," says captain and midfielder Jesse Marsch of how team dynamics work. "When things are going well, no one is really concerned about why it's happening or who's doing well. It's a bunch of guys who like to share what's going on.
"I've always said since I started playing here [in 2006] that Claudio sets the tone because he's such a humble guy and he's been so successful his whole career there's not much room for people to think too highly of themselves because you're playing with one of the humblest and most successful guys of all time."
Nine games into the season, Chivas USA stood alone atop the overall standings with a 7-1-1 record and 22 points, eight more than any other team. With six shutouts, Thornton was on a pace to break the league record of 15, and the three goals conceded presented a prime opportunity to break the league mark of 23 set by Houston two years ago.
Trujillo and Lillingston, veterans of more than a decade in the Mexican league as well as the 1997 U-20 FIFA world championship, not only restored some of the team's identity, they stepped right into the bustle and fury of MLS to perform well.
"It's been a great experience for me," says Trujillo, 32, who played seven years for UNAM and five seasons at Morelia along with short stays at two other Mexican clubs as well as a few months in Greece. "A few years ago I had a vision to play but I didn't know how the league is. Being here I'm really happy and excited about how the team has played. I'm learning a lot."
Trujillo, whose wife is from the Southern California city of San Dimas, and Lillingston appeared in eight of the first nine games. Lillingston scored twice, and Trujillo earned one assist while displaying a toughness and calmness that has helped settle the back line in the absence of Suarez, who has been working to regain his fitness since coming back to the team.
"I wanted to try something different," says Trujillo. "I had played some games against MLS teams and I knew they play hard. I just want to be a better player, a complete player, and being in MLS will give me that."
He also has a history with Suarez, having started his career at UNAM during the former Mexican international's time with that club.
While Kljestan struggled, not earning an assist until the ninth game of the season, Mayen (recently called by to the U.S. U-20s) took the team lead with four assists despite starting only three of seven games, and Stepanovic contributed several solid games on the flank while notching a goal and an assist.
The season began with a 2-1 comeback win over Colorado in which midfielder Paulo Nagamura, scorer of four goals in his previous 104 league matches, tallied twice for a 2-1 win. More than a month later, he netted again to down RSL, 1-0.
Preki used 19 field players in the first nine games while injuries kept Suarez and Ante Razov out of the lineup and greatly limited the playing time of veterans Alecko Eskandarian, Maykel Galindo and Sasha Victorine.
"It is a good feeling to be a part of this success but we haven't done anything yet," cautions Thornton. "There's going to be ups and downs and right now we're up. Preki does a good job of keeping us grounded and it's a great group of guys in the locker room. It's definitely a team effort and we're all happy with the success we're having right now, but it's a long season."
(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)