Preki has been tested
Leaning over a fence at the Home Depot Center’s track and field stadium Wednesday morning, Chivas USA Coach Preki could only nod his head in agreement.
Yes, he admitted, it has been the most challenging of his three seasons in charge of the Major League Soccer team.
“I’m still a young coach, and I think this is one of those years that you grow a lot, as a person, as a coach, in many ways,” he said.
“It’s been a challenging year, but the staff and the group have done a pretty decent job considering the things that we’ve had to deal with.”
Chief among the challenges has been the extraordinary succession of injuries that has caused 18 players out of a roster of 32 to miss from one to 26 games.
The front office has kept track of this trail of misfortune, and its figures show that the team has lost 177 “man-games” to injury, led by midfielder Raphael Wicky (26 games) defender Alex Zotinca (25) and defender Lawson Vaughn (23).
Wicky, Vaughn and defender Eric Ebert suffered season-ending injuries, while striker and 2007 leading goal scorer Maykel Galindo effectively was done in for the season after undergoing three surgeries, the most recent last week.
In addition, Chivas lost starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan in midseason when he joined Aston Villa in England, and at various times it has lost Shavar Thomas, Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Bornstein to their respective national teams.
As a result, Preki has juggled the starting lineup on literally a weekly basis since April. In its 31 regular-season and playoff matches, Chivas USA has used 29 lineups.
The last time the team used the same starters in consecutive games was on May 31 and June 5.
But despite all the chopping and changing, Chivas is only three victories shy of winning its first MLS championship. It needs to defeat Real Salt Lake in Carson on Saturday night, overcome the winner of the Houston-New York series the following weekend, and win the MLS Cup final in Carson on Nov. 23.
Is it possible?
“We can go as far as we want to go,” said goalkeeper Zach Thornton. “We have a good team. We’re playing good football. As long as we do what we know we can do and are supposed to do, we have just as good a chance as anybody.”
Much depends on how Preki shapes the team, and throughout the year the one player he has employed in the most roles is Bornstein, who has played as a wide defender, both left right and center, as a central defender, as a midfielder, both left and right, and as a forward.
“It’s been a little up and down,” said Bornstein, who has sat out eight games because of injuries, including a concussion. “I’ve been injury-free for a couple of months and within that time I’ve been moved around a little bit, trying to cover for some guys who have been hurt.
“I pride myself on my versatility. The only thing I like to do is be on the field. It doesn’t have to be where I want to be on the field [as long as] I’m helping the team out wherever I can.”
His role as Chivas USA’s utility man might also help Bornstein on the U.S. national team, where he has split time at left back with Heath Pearce, who plays in Germany.
Bornstein’s ability to play a variety of positions can only count in his favor with U.S. Coach Bob Bradley.
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REAL SALT LAKE AT CHIVAS USA
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Game 2 of aggregate-scoring two-leg series. (Chivas lost Game 1, 1-0)