Editor's Note: Soccer America begins its countdown to the MLS season with previews of each of the 19
By Ridge Mahoney
The much-awaited exodus under new head coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola is underway; as of Monday, a dozen players under contract at the end of the 2012 season had been jettisoned, and another – midfielder Shalrie Joseph – has been told he won’t be needed.
“El Chelis,” as Sanchez is known, may be an MLS neophyte, but he’s already stocked up on that valuable asset unique to MLS -- allocation money -- by trading away the likes of Nick LaBrocca, Ben Zemanski and last year’s No 5 overall SuperDraft pick, Casey Townsend. Chivas USA also received a chunk of allocation money for missing the playoffs, and dumped a lot of salary with the likes of Juan Pablo Angel, Alejandro Moreno and Danny Califf off the books.
Still, "El Chelis" may need every dollar of that allocation stash, as Joseph’s guaranteed DP salary will cost Chivas USA $335,000 against the $2.95 million per-team salary cap if it can’t unload him. How he negotiates the byzantine ways of MLS after coaching in Mexico will determine how well he revamps a team that does have some valuable pieces in place, whether or not he chooses to retain them: goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, striker Juan Agudelo, defender Bobby Burling and midfielder Miller Bolanos.
Operator-investor Jorge Vergara vowed to strengthen the team’s identity when he bought out former partner Antonio Cue during the 2012 season. "El Chelis" says his job is to change the team’s culture, and sporting director Dennis Te Kloese – who formerly worked with the club’s player development programs – will be jetting back and forth between Southern California and Guadalajara to monitor both operations.
Mario de Luna, Joaquin Velasquez, Jose Manuel Rivera, Walter Vilchez, Edgar Mejia, Giovani Casillas, Daniel Antunez, Josue Soto and Julio Morales -- many on the Chivas de Guadalajara payroll -- all played in a 3-0 defeat of Colorado in Las Vegas Sunday. None is currently on the MLS club's roster, though.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. A trade from Colorado, which in turn had claimed him in Stage 2 of the Re-Entry Draft, has seemed to energize not only Eric Avila. The trade of Zemanski to Portland netted the MLS rights to former Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein along with the allocation money. The only other signings to date are veteran defenders Steve Purdy and Carlos Borja. Carlos Alvarez, the No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick, grew up in Los Angeles idolizing former Chivas USA players Claudio Suarez, Francisco Mendoza and Francisco Palencia.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? "El Chelis" talks of stylish play as a means to success, and though preseason games can’t necessarily be determinant of anything, Chivas USA posted a six-match unbeaten streak. Just seven wins and 24 goals scored last year leaves vast room for improvement, and if some new players can be melded with young talents like Agudelo, the team can be competitive.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Sanchez led Mexican club Puebla to promotion and to the league semifinals one season, but MLS is a whole different ballgame. The team has seldom stirred the Southern California fans of parent club Guadalajara -- or those in other MLS cities -- and they will take extreme convincing that this makeover is the solution. With its lease at Home Depot Center set to expire next year, rumors of a pending move are rampant.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Avila, Agudelo and Bolanos are young, exciting, dynamic players, and the promises of a changed identity and new culture will be intriguing to evaluate as they play out on the field. As he did when he brought the team into MLS eight years ago, Vergara has set out to show the gringos how the game should be done.