Soccer: Chivas’ hot start surprises RSL
MLS • Los Angeles club is scoring often and winning.
Published: April 19, 2013 08:01PM
Updated: April 20, 2013 12:07AM
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Real Salt Lake's Paulo Jr. shoots to score against the Chivas USA in the second half of an MLS soccer game in Carson, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. The Real Salt Lake won 4-0. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

It wasn’t long ago Chivas USA was the laughingstock of the league.

The Los Angeles soccer club had endured its third straight season with single-digit victories. Newly hired coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola’s remarks about a shift in Chivas’ playing style and the club’s focus on Mexican-American players drew scoffs from fans and pundits. The punch line seemed to come on March 2, when Chivas suffered a 3-0 opening-night loss in front of sparse crowd at the Home Depot Center.

Look who’s laughing now.

When Chivas comes to Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, the Goats (3-2-1) will be sitting in second place in the Western Conference, off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

“I’m a little bit surprised,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said this week. “It’s a brand-new team with a brand-new coach. If you just count the number of players in their starting group that were in their starting group last year, it’s very low. What they have done is they’ve bought into their coach’s system and they work extremely hard. They want it in the worst way.

“My feeling is, in this league, the team that wants it in the worst way oftentimes gets it. … I preach that to my team as well.”

Sanchez Sola, nicknamed “El Chelis,” promised a shift to a more high-powered, Latin-style of play.

“We are going to try to implement a more appealing style of soccer for our fans, without forgetting that we are a team that plays in the United States,” he said at the time. “We will look to appeal to both cultures while obtaining positive results for the club. I feel that Chivas USA, at some point, lost that flavor and technique with the ball that is emphasized in Mexico and Latin America; we must re-establish that part and combine it with the MLS’ style of play.”

So far, Chivas’ play has been effective, if not exactly beautiful. The team’s 10 goals through six games are the second most in Major League Soccer. But the club has been content to gamble on defense, leaving goalkeeper Dan Kennedy to keep Chivas in some games.

“He’s got a very, very inexperienced group,” said national soccer analyst Brian Dunseth, who was briefly a part of Chivas after being traded from Real Salt Lake. “There aren’t a lot of players that a lot of other teams would want or have wanted. And somehow he’s figured out a way to be pretty competitive.”

Sanchez Sola, the former head of Puebla in Mexico’s Liga MX, has rankled plenty with his outspokenness and roster moves. But so far, Chivas’ roster moves have seemed to work.

“The team was in need of a radical overhaul,” Dunseth said. “Talking with [players], it sounds as if this group is having a lot of fun. Chelis is a spark. He’s a personality, and … he’s got them believing.”

afalk@sltrib.com

Chivas USA at Real Salt Lake

O At Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy)

Kickoff • Saturday, 7 p.m. TV • CW 30

Records • Chivas 3-2-1 (10 points); RSL 2-3-2 (8 points)

About Chivas • The team’s 10 goals are second most in MLS. ... Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy leads the league in saves with 28. ... Forward Juan Agudelo leads the club with two goals.

About RSL • The team is coming off a 1-1 draw in Vancouver, the fifth road match in its first seven games. ... Goalie Nick Rimando’s 23 saves are the second most in MLS, behind only Chivas’ Kennedy.