CARSON, Calif. – When Chivas USA took the field for arguably their most important game of the season on Saturday, they did so without their defensive leader. Veteran Heath Pearce was relegated to watching from the stands, nursing a hamstring strain that could keep him out for another month.
The absence of the US national-teamer, who previously had started every game this season, forced head coach Robin Fraser to use new personnel against D.C. United.
It didn’t work. Without their ironman on the field, the Rojiblancos defense suffered, falling 3-0 to DC due largely to several miscues on the defensive side of the ball.
“Looks pretty significant now doesn’t it?” said Fraser when questioned about Pearce’s absence. “You’d like to think when you build a team that you get a system and you can plug players in if someone has to be out. ... Obviously today, the back group didn’t play well enough, plain and simple.”
The inability of the back four to get on the same page was the story of the game. Brazilian David Júnior Lopes was making his second start in MLS while Ben Zemanski played at right back for the first time in his two-year career, joining regulars Michael Umaña and Ante Jazic.
The match was a trying one for Zemanski, whose failed clearance in the 16th minute of play fell to Chris Pontius, setting up Charlie Davies’ second of three goals on the night. Fraser had felt confident in giving the position to Zemanski while more experienced options – including rookie Zarek Valentin and second-year man Mike Lahoud – recovered from nagging injuries.
“We’ve had injury issues at right back recently and players are coming back into full fitness,” explained Fraser. “At the end of the day, Zemanski is a guy that battles no matter where he plays, and the thinking was, if we’re perhaps uncertain with [right back], then let’s go with the guy that has filled in admirably in a number of different positions for us through heart and desire.”
Looking ahead toward Chicago on Saturday, the Goats’ once reliable backline will again be stretched to the brink. However with Lahoud and Valentin returning to full fitness, it is likely that one of the two will see time at right back.
There are questions at center back, however. Pearce is still out and Júnior Lopes is unavailable after picking up a red card against DC. Without them, there will be an opportunity for players further down the depth chart to stake a claim for the stretch run.
“We’ve got Andy Boyens, who has been training hard, and it’s an opportunity,” said captain Simon Elliott. “Heath’s on the mend, he’ll be back soon, but you have to look at it as an opportunity for someone to be raising their hand and saying, 'I deserve to play every week.' It’s ‘what are you preparing to do’ time.”
Adam Serrano covers Chivas USA for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @adamserrano