Chivas USA started life with one enormous advantage, one that no other MLS club has: it knew, right from the start, who its potential fans were, and it knew that there were a lot of them. They were the Chivas fans living in the States among the huge Mexican-American communities, particularly in the Los Angeles area, which is where Chivas USA set up camp.
That was over three years ago. You look at Chivas USA today, and you wonder what went wrong -- indeed, you wonder just how such an advantage can simply disappear.
Because it's blazingly obvious that Chivas USA is in trouble. The team has one of the poorest attendance figures in MLS, it has failed to ignite the passion of those expat Chivas fans.
Listen to this: "As the only Mexican-owned team in major professional sports in the United States, Chivas USA brings a boldly different approach to the American sports landscape ..." Ringing words -- from the club's own media guide -- but meaningless, quite meaningless. In fact, Chivas USA seems determined to become simply another MLS club.
The team now features only two Mexican players and in Preki has a coach who is just about as non-Mexican as one can get. Neither of Preki's two top assistants is Mexican, while the club's Director of Soccer, whatever that may be, is Dutch.
There you have Chivas USA -- a club that has abandoned its Mexican roots and yet wonders why all those Mexican Chivas fans aren't storming the gates. All of this is pathetic enough, but it gets a good deal worse when you realize that MLS has already lived through a very similar scenario and not that long ago.
I'm thinking of the Dallas Burn in 2003. Another team with a Hispanic audience -- this one was not even potential, it existed as ticket sales, with the club acknowledging that some 30 percent of its support came from Hispanics. So good old Dallas goes out of its way to antagonize those fans. It appoints Colin Clarke as coach -- an Irishman with, clearly, no sympathy for Latin soccer. So he systematically denudes the team of Hispanic players. Then the team moves away from the Cotton Bowl, up to a decidedly non-Hispanic area. The fans, of course, abandon the team.
At that point we're forced to listen to some of the comments from the then-GM, another totally non-Hispanic guy, one Greg Elliott, who seemed a bit puzzled by the defection of the Hispanic fans. He called a meeting of local Spanish-language journalists and came up with what, I imagine, must have been the dumbest question he could think of. Certainly it was one of the most insulting. In effect, he wanted to know which was more important to the Hispanic fan: having Hispanic players on the team, or winning games? The journalists should have walked out. Sadly, they stayed, giving some slight credence to the idea that it was one or the other: either you had Hispanic players, or you had a winning team, it couldn't be both, according to Elliott.
Elliott, who knew nothing about soccer, then stated that it was necessary to "educate" the fans about how good MLS and the Burn were. Difficult -- because Clarke's team played like a poor imitation of an English third division team. The Hispanic fans, who knew a lemon when they saw one, stayed away.
Not to worry, said Elliott, if Clarke didn't want Hispanic players, that was fine. Elliott then crowned that thought with what has to be the mother of all fatuous comments by any club official anywhere -- "it's more important to play a style that suits your player pool than to just pander to audience." So much for the fans, then.
Both Clarke and Elliott have departed MLS, and I'm bringing up their banalities because I see hints of the same attitudes arising at Chivas USA. Preki's team had a good record last year, but was never particularly worth watching, standard MLS quasi-European stuff. Not at all what Chivas' trumpeted "boldly different approach" implied.
Then we have the comments of Chivas' GM Shawn Hunter. No, he's no Greg Elliott -- not yet anyway. But I'm apprehensive. Take this: "You'll always see us want to have a couple of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, but also a diverse roster that helps us win a cup."
Built into that is exactly the same thought that Elliott professed - not too many Hispanics, or you won't win anything; just a couple of Mexicans.
Does Hunter even understand anything about style of play? In a recent interview on the official MLS Web site, he admitted that the club had to do more to attract fans -- but never, not once, made any reference to the type of soccer to be played. Last week, interviewed by Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney , Hunter said: "I think we'd always be open to a player who could take us to the next level, not just a Mexican player, not just a player who has had success in the Mexican league."
Really. I think Chivas USA should be pulling out all the stops to find exactly that: a top-class Mexican. Does Hunter really believe that Preki's latest star signing -- Raphael Wicky, a 31-year old Swiss midfielder who nobody has ever heard of -- is going bring about next-level status?
Hunter also talked as if he had already written off the very fan base that prompted the birth of Chivas USA in the first place. Those Chivas fans have evidently proved, just as the Hispanics did in Dallas, to be a bit of a nuisance, simply because they know what they want.
Of course, one could give them what they want -- but that might, in Elliott's immortal words -- be "pandering to the audience." Hunter merely says "we're working in different communities." Building up a new fan base, he said is "going to take a few years." No doubt. But why is it necessary? The original concept of a Chivas-oriented team for a Chivas-passionate fan base has -- at the very least -- to be as valid as any other scheme.
I cannot see how the current alternative -- a standard MLS team masquerading as a Chivas sister-team -- is any better. And I wonder just how long owner Jorge Vergara is willing to go on losing millions in pursuit of a worthy dream that is fading into a will o' the wisp.