Somewhere along their preseason road, Club Deportivo Chivas USA slammed into a speed bump.
Then, everything fell apart. The offense stopped scoring, the defense stopped defending and the club stopped winning.
That's when Chivas USA went back to the drawing board. Ultimately, what looked good on paper and fit best with the parent club's philosophy was disastrous against quality opponents.
"You can't play a 3-4-3 because you'll get shredded in this league," Chivas USA defender Ryan Suarez said. "They're just too fast, too athletic in MLS."
Initially, Chivas USA wanted to instill the same attacking-minded 3-4-3 formation used by Chivas of Guadalajara. While it worked against lesser opponents like UCLA (a 5-0 Chivas USA win) and the San Diego Gauchos (2-0), it failed against the U.S. national team (7-0 in favor of the U.S.) and San Jose (a 3-0 thumping by the Earthquakes).
The original plan was to have numbers constantly in the box and keep the defense on its toes. But too many numbers in the attacking third left the rest of the field open.
"When we were playing the 3-4-3 we were getting a lot of counters and that was killing us. You could tell in the results," left back Orlando Perez said.
Chivas USA enters the season having played five friendlies with the new formation. Defensively, the team improved dramatically.
"The team is coming along good," Perez said. "I think finally we found a formation that's starting to work for us. We're starting to get comfortable with it. We're all learning our roles in that formation."
Suarez said the club focused on defense.
"That's the deal -- constantly covering and recovering," he said. "That's what it's been. Against America we talked the night before together as a team and decided really, if we're not going to be scoring a lot of goals then we can't be giving up goals."
Chivas USA beat Club America 1-0. Days later, the club fell to Osasuna by the same score.
Thus, the club has surrendered just one goal in its last 180 minutes.
"Slowly but surely we're starting to organize," Suarez said. "You've got to give a lot of credit to Thomas Rongen for assessing the situation and realizing you can't play like Chivas of Guadalajara."
But while the defense seems secure, the offense is struggling to find a rhythm. Outside of a 6-2 win against PDL side Fresno, Chivas USA has scored just three times in its last four games.
"We definitely have some areas we need to improve," left forward Matt Taylor said. "Every game you get in your system you're going to get better and you're going to figure out some things about your system and the players in that system and your role."
In Chivas USA's scheme, the wide forwards are expected to hold the line and get the ball in from the flanks. For Taylor, who moved from the right side of the field to the left midway through preseason, it's been an adjustment to his normal style of play.
Asked if he likes the 4-3-3 formation, Taylor responded, "Sometimes."
"It's something new. I've never really played a 4-3-3 and been out wide. They want us to stay out wide," he said. "I've always been a player who likes to get around the field and get in the middle and turn and it's a little tougher. It's more one-dimensional, straight up and down the line. There's times when I get across the field but it's different. It's going to take some time getting used to."
But the formation switch has worked, even if the club hasn't found its scoring touch.
"We've been a lot more successful. We've been in the game. We've had a chance to win the games," Taylor said.
Offense, though, will not just come from the forwards.
"Out of our system, we like for our fullbacks to attack as well," Rongen said. "We like to get more movement out of our central players in midfield. The combination of service combined with the fact that our forwards need to get ourselves in position as well."
Perez and Hendrickson will make runs out of the left and right back positions, respectively. And while the club is much more focused on defense, Perez said the team still has offense on its mind.
"This formation, we're solid in the back. We've got four guys back there that really work well together. When we switched (formations), we were getting results. We're still an attacking team. We have three up top still with three in the middle and the two outside backs going up and down."
Whatever the scheme, Rongen said it comes down to the players.
"You can't make too much about systems," he said. "It's just how you apply it when you have the ball."
Luis Bueno is a contributor to MSLnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.