SANDY — It’s been quite awhile since Chivas USA was relevant in Major League Soccer.
After qualifying for the playoffs four straight years from 2006 to 2009, the Goats have missed the postseason three straight seasons, including finishing last in the Western Conference twice.
Trends might be changing.
Even though it’s still very early in the season, Chivas USA strolls into Rio Tinto Stadium this Saturday with the second-best record in the West. New coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola — or El Chelis as he’s better known — overhauled the roster in the offseason, and for the first time in a while Chivas plays an attractive style of play and is no pushover.
As Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy said, “It looks like they have players that like to try to play.”
The paradigm shift from previous years is paying initial dividends as Chivas sits above expansion brethren Real Salt Lake in the standings for the first time since May 5, 2010.
RSL hopes to change all that this Saturday at 7 p.m. with the first of three straight home games and seven of its next 10.
The gap between second and eighth place in the West right now is merely two points, and Real Salt Lake is among the five teams sitting on eight points.
“At this point, what does it matter? We know it’s still early in the season, but in saying that, when we’re at home it’s three points every game. We expect to win at home,” said Grabavoy. “So as we start to build here, and start to collect more home games, we want to move up in the standings. We’d like to see ourselves creep back toward the top where more teams are looking up at us than looking down.”
The first step is putting a surprisingly decent Chivas USA team in the rear view mirror. Count RSL coach Jason Kreis among the surprised.
“Yeah I am a little bit surprised, because it's a brand-new team with a brand-new coach. If you just count the number of players that were in their starting group last year it's very, very low,” said Kreis. “What they have done is bought into their coach's system, and they have worked extremely hard. They want it in the worst way.”
For Real Salt Lake, this weekend represents a great opportunity to build momentum. The club always knew the first month and a half of 2013 would be difficult with five of seven games on the road — more away games than any other MLS team so far this season. All things considered, eight points through seven games is respectable, but with a big stretch of home games upcoming nobody expects RSL to be in seventh place much longer.
Despite the homestand, Grabavoy was quick to point out the importance of avoiding complacency — especially in the first game against a Chivas team that’s scored 10 goals this season.
Keeping Chivas’ attack in check will be a bit more difficult without Kyle Beckerman, who has been ruled out by Kreis. Beckerman suffered a dislocated rib in training prior to last week’s game in Vancouver.
Grabavoy suffered a similar injury early last season and missed three games.
Despite Beckerman’s absence, RSL could get a boost from defender Chris Wingert, who could make his 2013 starting debut Saturday. Robbie Findley is also a question mark to crack the starting lineup after missing two straight games.
Javier Morales is expected to make his second-straight start this Saturday, and he’s looking forward to the fresh challenge from the Goats.
“They have a good team, different than most of the teams in MLS. We have to be ready 'cause they are good enough to cause some troubles at home,” said Morales.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.
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