Chivas USA will put the finishing touches on what has been a strong campaign this season. Win or lose, the club will have set plenty of new regular-season highs.
To think, just three seasons ago Chivas USA was the laughingstock of the entire league.
I took the time to reflect back a bit on 2005 for my Press-Enterprise story this morning. I wrote about the three remaining members from the 2005 squad: Orlando Perez, Brad Guzan and Francisco Mendoza.
If you'd have asked me at the start of the 2005 season to pick three players who would have lasted the longest with the team, I probably wouldn't have picked that trio. Sure, Guzan seemed a no-brainer because he was the first draft choice and all but the other two weren't a given. Mendoza wasn't the most highly-regarded player brought up from Mexico while Perez was a journeyman at best.
I might have thought Isaac Romo or Hector Cuadros would have outlasted Mendoza. I might have put those two with Guzan as the final three. Or Christian Jimenez because he was a young, talented local kid. Or Arturo Torres for the same reason.
Instead, those guys are all gone, all just part of a bad first-year team.
Mendoza has been the best of the original eight the club brought up from Mexico... well, one of the two best. Luis Alonso "Negro" Sandoval has also gone on to succeed. He had a successful spell with Jaguares and even earned a call to the Mexican national team in December 2005. But Sandoval jumped ship in early March, just left to Guadalajara on a weekend trip and decided not to return.
Panchito blossomed into a standout at Chivas USA. Panchito became a fixure under Bob Bradley a year ago and has become one of the club's key players. The losing was hard on everyone the first year but it didn't bring down his spirits any.
"Believe me, I’ve enjoyed every one of Chivas’ three seasons and I’m extremely happy because of that," Mendoza told me.
He's still got room to improve and could be an even more important part of the team next year but Mendoza has come a long way in a short amount of time.
Like Panchito, Guzan has been a fixture with the team. Martin Zuniga was supposed to be the starting goalkeeper the first year but an arm injury in preseason sidetracked those plans. Guzan was tossed into the frey prematurely and was the brunt of many first-year jokes. But he showed quickly that he could play and by the team he was benched in favor of a healthy Zuniga in May, many including myself protested. Zuniga played because he was healthy, not because of Brad's improving play.
Eventually Guzan got the starting job back. He won the praise of Thomas Rongen and Hans Westerhof and first-year goalkeeping coach Javier "Zully" Ledesma. Sure, Guzan gave up a ton of goals that year but he wasn't really in a position to do otherwise. The defense was bad but it was all because of the abysmal formation/scheme/tactics/mindset. Rafa Marquez would have been hard-pressed to keep that defense intact. The three-man backline was a recipe for disaster.
Still, taking all that abuse, both on and off the field, only made Guzan stronger.
"It’s been good to be part of the club since Day One," Brad said. "It’s a good feeling to be able to experience the highs and lows. Obviously the lows have helped me become the player that I am. Without Chivas USA, who knows where I’d be?"
Of the three, Perez surprises me the most. The first year, he was in the same category as Ezra Hendrickson and Francisco Gomez, guys who had played in MLS before and had something to offer. I would have ranked Perez third in terms of value in that group, but again he outlasted Hendrickson and Gomez. EZ was dealt early in '06 and Gomez vanished during the preseason as well.
Perez stuck around. He is a useful player because he is versatile and knows his role on the team.
"Me, Brad and Panchito, we’ve been here from the beginning," Perez told me recently. "We’ve been through it all, the bad times and the good times and I think that our hard work and dedication paid off for us. There have been many players in and out and we’ve seemed to do what we got to do to stick around."