Head-to-Head Breakdown: Chivas USA vs. LA Galaxy

Dan Kennedy has come out of virtually nowhere to be perhaps the stand-out goalkeeper in MLS this season. The big man from Fullerton, Calif., has bounced around both North and South America and spent the past several years playing backup to Zach Thornton. When Thornton struggled early this season, Kennedy filled the gap and Chivas have hardly looked back since. He dominates on crosses, makes himself big in 1-on-1 situations, and is quick off his line. The Rojiblancos are one of the hottest teams in MLS, and Kennedy is a big reason why.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

The 2010 Galaxy got off to one of the most dominant starts in MLS history behind the goal-scoring exploits of Edson Buddle and a stingy defense led by Donovan Ricketts. Buddle has since left to ply his trade in Germany, but Ricketts is still at the Home Depot Center, prowling the 18-yard box for LA. While he's the defending MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and still one of the league's best, he has yet to show the dominating form that he started 2010 with and can still occasionally give up big rebounds.

A rookie, a retread, a guy learning a new spot and another guy who was born during the Ford administration. On paper, the Chivas USA defense should be swiss cheese. But on grass, it's been solid and sure, with longtime left back Heath Pearce being a bit of a revelation at central defense. He still has moments when he can be dodgy, but he's calm in possession and reads the game well. Mentally, the Chivas defenders are all on the same page, and that makes them greater than the sum of the parts.

 

DEFENSE

 

 

Early in the season, when Omar Gonzalez was on the mend from a shoulder injury, the dominant Galaxy defense of last season's Supporters' Shield run seemed like memory from long, long ago. Since the big man's return, though, things have started falling into place and LA are starting to climb in the defensive rankings. Partnered in the middle by A.J. DeLaGarza and with veterans Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin bombing up and down the flanks, LA are the prototypical flat-four back line, well-drilled, well-organized and calm on both sides of the ball.

The Chivas USA midfield has been a work in progress for what seems like several years. The latest incarnation — one that looks to be paying dividends — features veteran Simon Elliott pulling the strings as a deep-lying pivot with Nick LaBrocca and Ben Zemanski adding bite, possession and width. Joining them is Jorge Flores, the original Sueño MLS winner and a diminutive left winger who's coming into his own after several years of sporadic play. The unbalanced midfield is a bit unconventional, but it's been getting results.

 

MIDFIELD

 

Any midfield featuring Landon Donovan and David Beckham is probably going to be pretty good. Donovan's been on an epic tear with seven goals in his last five games, while Beckham is playing perhaps his best ball since joining MLS in 2007. Either Mike Magee or Chris Birchall starts on the wing opposite Donovan, and both have brought quality consistently this season. But the key is the little Brazilian d-mid, Juninho. He frequently drops deep to protect the central defense and is an expert distributor. He can also push up into attack and unleash a wicked shot.

While the pieces that make up the Chivas midfield and defense have come together seemingly against all odds, the starting forward duo of Alejandro Moreno and Justin Braun is the pairing most observers would have bet on for the Goats before the season kicked off. It's taken a bit of time for them to get on the same page, but they've clicked over the past month and Braun's hat-trick last week against the Red Bulls suggests there's more to come.

 

FORWARDS

 

Juan Pablo Ángel was brought in to replace the ultra-productive Buddle, and through the first third of the season, he's been a disappointment. But as the veteran himself said, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." A lively performance against Sporting KC last Saturday was topped with a well-taken goal, and the hope is Ángel will be back to his sniper-like best. Chad Barrett provides hard work and vision but, like his counterpart Moreno, is a lamentable finisher.

 

If, at any point from 1996 to 2005 you polled MLS players and asked who, among their peers, would make the best manager, Robin Fraser's name would have been at the top of the list. In his first go-round as the man in charge, he's proven that assumption a good one and is an early frontrunner for MLS Coach of the Year.

 

COACH

Fraser may be at the top of the Coach of the Year race, but Bruce Arena's résumé has a check-mark next to nearly every managerial accomplishment in the book — including rebuilding a Galaxy squad in 2009 that looks a lot like this Chivas squad of 2011. He has his LA team humming along right now and has never lost a SuperClásico.

Despite injuries to three probable starters, the loss-of-form of their 'keeper and the suspension of Marcos Mondaini, Chivas still have talent and experience to bring in off the bench in both defense and midfield. Up top is a different story, with recently signed reserve-teamer Chris Cortez the only legitimate option.

 

BENCH

The Galaxy bolstered their defensive depth by inking ex-FC Dallas starter Kyle Davies, and have plenty of options in the midfield with whichever of Magee or Birchall doesn't start, Miguel López and Michael Stephens. Up top they're a bit thin — López can play as a withdrawn forward, but isn't a goal-scorer.

Chivas are one of the hottest teams in MLS, and if there were any doubts about their mettle, they put them to rest with last week's win at New York. It was the first time any team had gone cross-continent to get a win in either direction. Defensively, they can still make mistakes, but Kennedy covers up the lion's share of them and, because of the on-field organization that Fraser has instilled, they almost never make the same mistake twice. They'll be opportunistic in front of net and LaBrocca — one of the more underrated players in the league — will jump passing lanes, trying to force high turnovers and get the break started.

 

OVERALL

 

LA have climbed to the top of our weekly Power Rankings despite leaving points on the table several times already this year. First it was the monsoon draw against New England, then the late penalty at DC, then the finishing woes against New York and, finally, Franklin's backpass gift to Philly for yet another draw. The feeling after last week's thumping of Sporting is that those mental lapses are now a thing of the past, and the Galaxy who thundered to the 2010 Supporters' Shield are back. Watch for a more aggressive Ángel picking up the ball in the left channel and challenging Andrew Boyens at every turn.