The Major League Soccer standings tell us Chivas USA and D.C. United offers the battle between the league’s two last-place teams. That is the simple view, but beneath the surface Sunday’s encounter at the StubHub Center will feature two teams eager to turn newfound energy into a positive result.
United is still looking for its first away win of the season. Last week on the road against the New York Red Bulls, the soccer gods were not with United when Dwayne De Rosario’s penalty kick was saved and the Black and Red missed out on at least a point from its trip. Still in its last six games United has scored seven goals after only finding the back of the net nine times in its first twenty games.
For Chivas USA points have still been a challenge to secure, but the belief within the team is that the play is better. Before Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at Seattle, Chivas USA scored five goals in two games including a 2-2 road draw with Vancouver and a stunning 3-2 win at home over the Red Bulls.
The win over the Red Bulls sent shockwaves around the league, but Chivas USA has been showing dramatic improvement at home. In four of its last five home matches Chivas USA has received at least a point with two wins and two ties. It’s been settling stretch for a team that actually blazed out of the gate at the start of the season.
From the first five matches of the 2013 campaign Chivas USA grabbed three wins and one tie, but then it all dried up. Chivas USA went winless from March 30 to July 17. In the midst of that slide Chivas changed coaches. In June José Luis “El Chelís” Sánchez Solá was fired and replaced by Jose Luis Real.
Real was in charge of Chivas USA parent club Guadalajara in Liga MX from 2009 to 2011. In 2010, Real set Chivas’ record for most consecutive wins in the first stages of the Mexican tournament with eight victories and later reached a Copa Libertadores final. Real’s hiring was viewed as an example of the commitment by the ownership to compete in MLS.
The history of Chivas USA in MLS has been a unique one. Chivas of Gudalajara and Club America are considered Mexico’s two most popular clubs. Purchased by billionaire Jorge Vergara in 2002, Chivas soon began a courtship with MLS. Chivas provided the opposition at the 2003 MLS All Star Game.
This was at a time when MLS was still trying to recover from shutting down the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion teams after the 2001 season. Other MLS franchises were struggling with the original San Jose Earthquakes about to move to Houston. Chivas USA interest in MLS was welcome.
There were suggestions that Chivas USA should be launched in another market other than Los Angeles. At the time San Diego was floated as a likely option, but Vergara was determined to be in Los Angeles and when Chivas USA started in 2005 it was a tenant of the Los Angeles Galaxy in the stadium then known as Home Depot Center.
The team’s first season was a disastrous, but after conceding early mistakes were made Chivas USA worked to reboot. Future U.S. Men’s National team coach Bob Bradley was put in charge and the results and crowds started to follow. Sadly Chivas USA has fallen back on times reminiscent of 2005 with losses and small crowds.
While there have been plenty of calls for Chivas USA to be sold or moved, Vergara has strongly expressed his desire to make things right in Los Angeles. Along with the hiring of Real as head coach, a long term commitment was made to goalkeeper Dan Kennedy and the arrival of forward Erick Torres from Guadalajara has produced dividends with 6 goals and 1 assists in eight games.
For United Sunday’s match is another important step as it continues it's countdown to the U.S. Open Cup final. A stated goal by head coach Ben Olsen is to have United playing at its very best by the October 1 Cup final against Real Salt Lake. There is no magic switch to flick. The work that is accomplished now likely will tell the future.
Encouraging signs for United include the return to health for Dwayne De Rosario and Nick De Leon. Since returning to the lineup from a hip injury in late July De Rosario has again looked like a game changer. De Leon has started six of the last seven matches and finally broke through with his first goal of the season last week against the Red Bulls. De Leon had six goals in his rookie season in 2012.
United against Chivas on Sunday in Los Angles is by far the MLS glamour match of the weekend, but for the teams involved it is about trying to carve out progress in a season that has been rife with challenges.