February 27, 2013

Kennedy A Keeper For Chivas USA

The last place Dan Kennedy figured to find himself on the eve of another Major League Soccer season was on the practice field with a Chivas USA team beginning its fourth makeover in five seasons.

If anyone had paid his dues and earned a change of scenery it was Kennedy. He has played for a tiny club in Chile and with the second-tier Puerto Rico Islanders before enduring three consecutive losing seasons with a listless Chivas franchise that has experienced little direction and even fewer wins since he came aboard in 2008.

And with the Galaxy in the market for a goalkeeper and Chivas in the midst of a transition that would see it jettison a dozen players in the last four months, it looked as if Kennedy was finally going to be rewarded.

Until he wasn't.

Off-season talks between Chivas and the Galaxy, its roommate at the Home Depot Center, broke down in December and the Galaxy eventually signed former Tottenham Hotspur keeper Carlo Cudicini. Kennedy wasn't going anywhere — leaving him, once again, to hope that this will be the season Chivas finally turns things around.

"I've been in situations where things haven't worked before," Kennedy says with a tired shrug as he trudges toward the locker room. "What-ifs won't get you anywhere. You have to be realistic."

And a realistic assessment is that Kennedy will be facing another tough season — not to mention a ton of shots on goal. In his two years as a starter, no other MLS keeper has seen more shots or made more saves. And not coincidentally, no team in the Western Conference has won fewer games over that span than Chivas.

For Kennedy, that's simply not acceptable.

"I'm sick of it," he says of the losing. "When I first got to this team we were a playoff team. And that was the expectation. We need to right the ship. And maybe with the group being so new we'll be a little naive about how hard this thing may be and we'll surprise some people."

If they do, expect Kennedy, 30, to be a big reason why. Despite the lingering unhappiness and disillusionment over how things worked out this winter, Kennedy has set all that aside and emerged as a leader on the young team — so much so new Coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola has named him captain.

That's a rare honor for a keeper but one Kennedy clearly earned, both with his play and with his attitude during a 2012 season that saw Chivas allow a conference-worst 58 goals. It would have been understandable — and honest — to blame many of those on a porous defense that gave up 502 shots, just one off the league lead.

It certainly wasn't Kennedy's fault — he made enough acrobatic saves to finish second in the voting for top keeper in the MLS despite a career-high 1.69 goals-against average

Still, he refused to throw his teammates under the bus.

His challenge now is to help bring some stability to a franchise whose only constant has been change. And the last four months have brought the most dramatic change of all, with new ownership remaking the franchise in the image of its Mexican League cousin, Chivas de Guadalajara.

Under Sanchez Sola, Chivas has adopted both a Mexican style of play and a Mexican personality — which is why it has purged the roster of 12 non-Mexicans since last season. As a result, Kennedy now spends part of each practice translating the coaches' instructions for non-Spanish-speaking teammates.

Outwardly the new captain has embraced the moves, which have helped Chivas cruise through the preseason unbeaten. Inwardly, though, there are questions over whether that success will continue when the MLS season opens March 2, with Chivas playing host to the Columbus Crew, or whether Kennedy will once again be the best player on a bad team.

For now, though, he remains a good soldier, toeing the company line.

"Obviously changes needed to be made. We couldn't continue to go in the direction we were going," he says. "It's never ideal and change is never easy. But this career is too short for us guys and to sit around and complain."

Complaining isn't in Kennedy's nature. So though he may wish he were somewhere else this season, don't expect him to show that on the field.

"This club," he says "knows as long as I'm here, I'll give them everything I have."

(Story first published in Los Angeles Times)

kevin.baxter@latimes.com