CARSON, Calif. – Injuries and national team call-ups have forced Chivas USA to get creative with their lineups early into the season. The result is a number of players being tested at new positions.
One example is veteran defender Heath Pearce, a natural outside back who has started the last three matches (including US Open Cup play) as a center back. It’s a position that Pearce had never played in a game situation prior to this year.
On Saturday, Pearce will get his biggest test yet in the heart of the defense as the Rojiblancos face the explosive attack of the Vancouver Whitecaps at Empire Field (7:30 pm ET, Direct Kick, MatchDay Live).
A leader in the training ground, Pearce feels that while there is a learning curve, being in central defense allows him to lead the defense more effectively. In the two matches that Pearce has played centrally, he has drawn rave reviews for his ability to organize the Rojiblancos, which has only conceded two goals while Pearce has been in the center.
“Being central gives me more of a chance to organize the defense because when you’re outside, you’re kind of isolated since the center back next to you is the one controlling the lines,” Pearce told MLSsoccer.com. “At center back, you’re linked up to seven or eight guys that you can move and control, which helps you set the tempo of the game and just helps me lead a lot better.”
In the scoreless draw against the Columbus Crew, the Rojiblancos started Pearce alongside rookie Zarek Valentin, which led to head coach Robin Fraser to joke before that match that his team started a back line of four outside backs.
It was an experiment that helped the club earn the shutout, but was not without testy moments as defensive miscues led to scoring chances for the Crew.
The Whitecaps pose a unique challenge with physical players like Eric Hassli (whom Fraser calls a “giant”) and former Chivas man Atiba Harris (“only slightly smaller”) counter-balancing the speedy Camilo in attack. During the first few weeks of the season, Vancouver have made a living off capitalizing off defensive errors, a fact of which that Fraser is keenly aware.
“We’ve played well and solidly at times, but we’ve had some individual mistakes that have gotten us into trouble," the Goats coach said. "This is a team that will exploit us if we continue to have mistakes. It’s huge, every game is an opportunity to get better and we’ve certainly shuffled guys over the field, it’s all just a work in progress.”
Pearce will likely be joined in the back by Valentin for a second straight match as Chivas USA captain Jimmy Conrad is still experiencing concussion symptoms and is not expected to travel to Vancouver. Also not traveling with the team is midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who will get at least one more week of rest before returning to the lineup.
There is a bright spot however, as veteran midfielder Simon Elliott is expected to travel and may start against the Whitecaps.
Adam Serrano covers Chivas USA for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @adamserrano