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Changes start at top for Chivas USA

Following Chivas USA's inaugural campaign, changes came quickly and often. With four wins to show for their first year of existence, it was to be expected.

When the 2005 season ended, the club cut ties with seven players, including three starters. Then, Bob Bradley replaced Hans Westerhof as coach. Soon after, the club began acquiring veteran players such as Ante Razov and Jesse Marsch. Then came the SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft as Chivas USA picked up more players. The start of preseason did not signal the end of the club's transactions as veteran defenders Claudio Suarez and Carlos Llamosa officially joined the club in March.

Spirits are seemingly high and players and coaches appear optimistic -- albeit guarded -- about the 2006 season. But given the type of rude awakening the club had a year ago, the only way for Chivas USA to go is up.

"Last year I didn't have the opportunity to watch this team but their four wins says it all," newcomer Llamosa said. "I feel that it's difficult to build a team from scratch. This year, we have a good group, a good coaching staff and everybody is working hard to get this team to the top of the league."

If the team will indeed compete for a playoff spot, the new and the old will have to blend well. Aside from the key arrivals, returning players such as Francisco Palencia, Juan Pablo Garcia and Brad Guzan will be important; how soon they mesh with the likes of Razov, Marsch and Suarez will be key.

In order to be in contention at season's end, the first few weeks will be critical.

"The early part of the season, you want to get off to a good start, you want to feel like little things you worked on are coming together, you want to gain some confidence and use that as a springboard for the rest of the year and be ready at the end of the year to, first be in the playoffs, and secondly be a team that can win," Bradley said.

Veteran leadership will be vital for this club. A year ago, Chivas USA fielded a hodgepodge group of first-year MLS players and veterans in the league who could not stick on other teams. This year, veterans have arrived -- and cemented their spots in the starting lineup. More importantly, their presence in the locker room should help the club gain a winning mentality or at least a positive one.

The anchors of this year's squad, both on the field and off, could be on the defense. World Cup veterans Suarez and Llamosa will bring a much-needed jolt of leadership, experience and talent to the club's meager backline, which allowed a league-worst 67 goals in 2005.

"We need to be better in the back so experienced players are important," Bradley said. "Claudio and Carlos Llamosa are two players we brought in who read the game well and know how to organize the defense. Claudio has had an excellent preseason. He works hard every day and is a great example to all the other players. It's a pleasure to work with him every day."

In the midfield, Marsch should set the tone as he did for years in Chicago under Bradley. Veteran Ramon Ramirez injured himself during preseason and likely will not be ready for several weeks. Returning youngsters Francisco Mendoza and Juan Pablo Garcia add punch to the club's midfield but certainly the vital cog in the puzzle is Marsch. The 31-year-old is just another in the long line of veterans the club brought in to stabilize the situation.

"The veterans are so important in terms of setting the tone every day," Bradley said. "We've talked about Ante, Paco (Palencia), Claudio, Carlos Llamosa, Ramon. Jesse is another one who understands what needs to get put into it every day in order to have a good team. He's been a real good leader in the team in terms of establishing the trust of all the players and setting a good example and making sure that we're going to be one group working together."

Goals should not be at a premium as much as they were a year ago, when the club scored just 31 goals. Palencia and Razov, both accomplished goal scorers in their own rights, will combine to form what could be one of the league's most potent strike forces.

Since the start of training camp, the two have had a good connection and a strong understanding of each other.

"Both have had very good preseasons," Bradley said. "Both are real competitors and both want to win. I think it helps set the tone with the rest of the team with the way they've pushed themselves every game. For me, it's a good sign."

Aside from the huge turnover, the club also had a shift in the team's demographics. While Mexicans and Mexican-Americans seemed to have been the focal point a year ago, many of the newcomers are neither, including Bradley, Marsch and Razov from the USA and Colombian-born Llamosa.

And while Mexican veterans such as Suarez and Palencia will be key parts of the club, it seems the club is more heterogeneous now.

"They took a much different approach," Marsch said of the club's offseason moves. "This year, they brought in a new coach and kind of have a new philosophy, not necessarily in terms of whether you're Hispanic or not but in terms of just trying to get good players."

Like many of the newcomers, Marsch said he welcomes the club's Mexican roots.

"Me being one of the gringos or whatever, I'm still embracing the Mexican culture and the Chivas style of play," Marsch said. "I just want to help it get even better. I want to keep all the good things about this club and the Mexican club and kind of make it better here. I want to learn Spanish. I've always liked Mexican football. Now I can call it football instead of calling it soccer all the time.

"I'm excited and it's a great place to be right now."

Luis Bueno is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.