Chivas USA grapple with continued defensive upheaval ahead of daunting visit to Portland Timbers

CARSON, Calif. – A humbled Chivas USA side began preparations Wednesday for their upcoming trip to Portland (Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE), knowing their patchwork backline faces yet another difficult challenge.

Through the first five weeks of the season, head coach Wilmer Cabrera has been forced to field three different combinations in front of goalkeeper Dan Kennedy. Right back Eric Avila and center back Carlos Bocanegra have started every game, but constant variation could be a major reason why the Rojiblancos have allowd 10 goals, tied (with the Timbers, oddly enough) for the worst total in Major League Soccer.

The latest alignment paired Avila and Bocanegra with youngsters Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Eriq Zavaleta, and they appear to be the probable starters for Saturday night’s match against the Timbers, given the injury concerns of Bobby Burling (labrum) and Tony Lochhead (hamstring). Of the four projected starters, only Bocanegra is playing a truly familiar position.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Avila, a converted midfielder, told “It’s kind of hard when you’re coming in and trying to play a different position. Usually the first couple of games, the defense is synced-in and together, but when you have to put in new players, it’s hard to get going.”

Jean-Baptiste, a natural center back filling in wide left, was victimized by the LA Galaxy last weekend in a 3-0 loss. His insertion came out of necessity after Zavaleta, a converted forward, leapfrogged Jean-Baptiste to snag the other center-back spot alongside Bocanegra.

Now Jean-Baptiste is set to return to Portland for the first time since Chivas USA acquired him in an offseason trade, and he will be trying to turn the tide in a matchup that saw Chivas USA outscored 9-1 in three matches against Portland last year, including a 3-0 defeat in May. He will also be trying to build on positioning adjustments made in the second half against the Galaxy.

“As the game went on, he had tendencies to slide in too much; that helped [the Galaxy] in their first goal,” Cabrera told reporters. “He adjusted in the second half, and it wasn’t a problem. He’s a good, experienced player in MLS, but our team wasn’t sharp enough. You can say he got exposed, but most of the time, he adjusted and improved, especially in the second half.”

Lochhead left Wednesday’s on-field session early to continue his work indoors with the team training staff, while Burling underwent fitness drills on the side. It all could add up to Jean-Baptiste making another start at left back, this time in the building where his professional career began.

“I know it’s a crazy environment [in Portland] and know that [the fans] try to do to get into some players’ heads,” the former Timber told reporters recently. “A lot of teams crumble under that kind of pressure, but I just look at it like I’m going back home.”

For Chivas USA (1-2-2), the game against the Timbers (0-2-3) offers another opportunity for the inexperienced back line to mesh around Bocanegra.

“[Bocanegra] is our voice,” Avila said. “He’s always adjusting us, moving us around and telling us when to step up. It helps a lot, but when we have new players in new positions, it’s hard to adjust right away.”