With all three nursing nagging injuries of late, Rivera only saw 21 minutes of playing time in Friday’s 1-1 draw with Dayton, while Gaitán was rested entirely. The trio did start against Pittsburgh and they made their presence felt throughout the match, their combination plays leading to Chijindu registering an assist and two goals, one of them set up by a beautiful Gaitán chip over the Riverhounds defense.
“It was probably the best game we’ve played all season,” Jalayer assessed. “For one thing, we recorded our first shutout in a long time by being alert defensively and really trying hard to improve in the areas where we had been lacking. Attacking-wise, it obviously made a huge difference to have Walter, Cesar and Chuck all in the starting lineup. Everybody seemed to be feeding off their energy, and the kind of goals we scored showed the level of confidence this team has when we can draw on our entire roster.”
Chijindu’s second tally of the night, which made it 2-0 in the 29th minute, was considered by many to be the game’s best.
“It was a great team goal,” the 25-year-old recalled. “We connected well over ten passes before I scored. I remember a couple of quick combinations in tight space between Walter, Edwin (Miranda), Cesar and me. Then I made a good run and Walter played a world-class ball over the top that I ran onto. I was able to take a clean first touch and finish it in the corner with the outside of my right boot. It felt great because so many guys were involved in it.”
While joining Chijindu in praising the buildup play that led to the goal, Shayon Jalayer was also quick to applaud his striker’s individual performance throughout ninety minutes.
”The game against Pittsburgh was the first time I felt like Chuck looked healthy and really comfortable,” the Blues’ Associate Head Coach offered. “I even mentioned to (Blues Head Coach) Charlie (Naimo) on the bus that, had Chuck not had two goals and an assist, I would have still said he’s on the right path. He was very clean on the ball and looked sharp overall.
“His first touch was great and he linked up with the midfield very well. In addition, his timing of dropping back and then breaking away was fantastic. While he worked extremely hard to get open when he didn’t have the ball, he also battled defensively. Of course, you always want to see numbers out of a striker, but the match was a breakout performance for Chuck in more ways than the statistics can show.”
Jalayer explained why the availability of Chijindu, Gaitán and Rivera is such a crucial factor in the team’s attacking-oriented style of play, despite numerous other high-quality players on the Blues’ roster.
“We believe very firmly that any team we put on the field should be able to get a result for us,” the former Head Coach at California Baptist University clarified. “You saw that against Dayton. Even though we were without Cesar and Walter for the majority of the game, we could have still walked away with six points if it hadn’t been for a lack of concentration. At the same time, not having our most creative players out there definitely makes for a more calculated game plan.
”It’s just a perfect storm when we get all three of them on the field together, because each brings a unique quality to the table and that makes us incredibly unpredictable. I call it the ‘hold-your-breath factor.’ When one of those guys gets the ball, you’re just waiting for him to do something special with it.”
34-year-old playmaker Walter Gaitán joined the Blues after an illustrious career that included successful stints with Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Spain’s FC Villareal as well as 73 goals in 179 matches for Tigres UANL of the Mexican Priméra Division.
“Walter is an experienced and technically gifted player who makes everyone around him more comfortable,” Jalayer said. “My analogy is that of a screaming baby that quiets down when you give it the bottle, because Walter provides the team with that calming effect. He keeps possession extremely well since his touch on the ball is so clean, but he’s also willing to do the dirty work in a way you don’t necessarily expect from a guy of his age and with that kind of creativity. He’s a perfect role model and a true leader.”
Meanwhile, Rivera is perhaps the member of the Blues’ “attacking triangle” with the most intriguing story. Despite training with Mexican powerhouses Necaxa and Morelia, the now 24-year-old couldn’t seem to latch on to a professional club and ended up spending time with several amateur sides as well as with the PDL’s Los Angeles Azul Legends. He was discovered by the Blues’ coaching staff ahead of the 2011 USL PRO season for his raw talent and his awe-inspiring attacking instincts.
“Cesar is absolutely passionate about his football and extremely active on the field,” Jalayer offered. “You bring him on and you can automatically feel the level of urgency pick up throughout the team. I honestly believe that his mind operates at a different level in terms of the way he sees the field and the ideas that he has. That forces opposing teams to pay a lot of attention to him, which opens things up for our other attacking players.”
Finally, Chijindu is on loan from MLS side C.D. Chivas USA, where he has played 23 games since 2009 and at one point looked on his way to eventually cracking the starting eleven.
“Chuck is someone who will grind you down,” the Blues’ Associate Head Coach said about his striker. “He’s technically sound but also able to match the other team’s physicality when games get chippy. That way, he can signal the direction to the players around him and make the team pull itself up from its own bootstraps if necessary.”
Chijindu acknowledged the importance of his two attacking-minded colleagues to his game but also stressed that a performance like Sunday’s against Pittsburgh is the result of a full team effort.
“The chemistry is obvious when Walter, Cesar and I are all out there together,” he said. “Of course, having two players of their quality alongside me can only impact my performance in a positive way. Even though none of us are fully fit, knowing each other’s strengths still enables us to create dangerous opportunities. We pose a threat to any opponent because we can hurt them in many different ways.
“Having said that, Sunday’s game was a great team win because we all fought for each other and worked extremely hard to get three points, not just the three of us.”
The striker’s point is an important one, especially considering some defensive lapses in recent games caused the Blues to give up untimely goals as well as valuable points as a result.
“Against Pittsburgh, the team went out and played a solid ninety minutes,” defender Cameron Dunn assessed. “We finished our chances and defended well. In other games, we seemed to let up a little and allow our opponents to get back into them, but we didn’t make that mistake this time. We know how we can play as a team, and I think we proved it against a strong Riverhounds squad.
“We took it upon ourselves to defend hard for the entire match with no letdowns,” he continued. “We really needed the points from the two-game road trip and it showed on the field. Everyone was on the same page.”
Nelson Akwari agreed with his backline colleague, focusing in greater detail on some of the defensive problems that seemed to become a common theme in the analyses of recent matches.
“The coaching staff has been giving the whole team fair criticism in regards to our defending,” Akwari said. “I think in the past few games the backline hasn’t done the job we know we’re capable of. Having given up a goal in the second half against Dayton on Friday, we were all focused on keeping a clean sheet and getting back to our winning ways.
“We know our offense is capable of creating chances and scoring goals, so if we can consistently be tough to score against, we’ll have a lot of success. Against Pittsburgh, we limited the number of fouls we committed in dangerous areas and communicated more effectively along the backline. The team as a whole was committed to getting the shutout.”
The challenge for the Los Angeles coaching staff now is to maintain the form from the dominant win despite an extended period without any official fixtures, as the Blues’ next match will come in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup on June 14. However, with several players currently banged up, Shayon Jalayer stressed the upside of the break while declining to give specifics on what the team might be focusing on in training over the course of the next few weeks.
“The primary focus is to get the guys with nagging injuries one hundred percent fit so we can attack the middle third of our schedule with everything we have,” he said. “Apart from that, I could only give clichés right now about how we have to continue to work hard. I think we’ll get together as a coaching staff to discuss what we’ve learned from the first third of our season and what we want to accomplish going forward. At that point, we’ll put together our training schedule according to those goals.”
The Blues’ Associate Head Coach did close on a positive note, as he addressed the current state of the team in light of the games at Dayton and Pittsburgh and looked ahead to the upcoming four weeks without league fixtures.
“At the end of the day, coming out with four out of a possible six points during this road trip speaks volumes,” he offered.
“Perhaps most importantly, we played our best football of the season against Pittsburgh and beat a strong team on its own home turf. Heading into the break, we’re very pleased with this result, and I think that it sends a resounding message to the rest of the league that we’re for real.”
Josh Tudela joined Jalayer in his overall positive assessment of the side’s form, while also glancing carefully towards the rest of the season.
“It’s still early on, but I think we’re sitting in a very good position to not only make the playoffs but to hopefully host some playoff games,” the team captain said. “One of our goals is to try and finish out as regular season champs, and I think we’ve given ourselves a chance to do that. We’ve grown a lot as a team between the season opener and now and are still coming together more each game. We’re glad to have a month off now so we can get everybody back to full health and really be prepared for what’s to come.”
The sentiment was echoed by Nelson Akwari, who also shared his teammate’s cautiously optimistic outlook on the rest of the 2011 USL PRO campaign.
“We have a lot of players carrying around little injuries, so we need to take advantage of this time to get everyone healthy,” the Texas native said. “It’s difficult being a new team, but with the experienced players we have, expectations are high. Over the past nine games, we’ve shown glimpses of our quality. We just need to be more consistent. That will come from a continued focus and high intensity in training.
“The good thing about playing regular season games is that they help you maintain that edge and sharpness, so we’ll have to work extremely hard to make sure we don’t drop our level. I think if we can come out of this break healthier and even more focused, we can be very successful.”