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Chivas USA Project, Year 3
by Ridge Mahoney, May 8th, 2007 3PM

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TAGS:  mexico, mls


The departures of head coach Bob Bradley, striker Francisco Palencia and midfielder Juan Pablo Garcia aren't the only changes at Chivas USA. The club is reaching deeper into the Mexican-American community with programs and promotions as it strives for greater success on the field.

Bombast has been replaced by balance. Strident proclamations have faded in the wake of stark reality. Instead of bravado, there is branding.

On the training fields and in the offices of Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center, no one mentions "teaching the gringos how to play soccer," as operator-investor Jorge Vergara famously boasted in the days leading up to the team's 2005 debut in Major League Soccer. Reality has levied a sobering effect.

Four wins and two head coaches in its inaugural season prompted Chivas USA to jettison more than half of its roster and hire Bob Bradley, who guided the team into the playoffs with a 10-9-13 record. He departed to coach the U.S. national team, Mexican stars Francisco Palencia and Juan Pablo Garcia also left, Amado Guevara arrived in a trade from Red Bull New York, and so in its third season, in some ways, Chivas USA is starting over. Again.

But unlike the inaugural season, it isn't starting from scratch, and it has two years of experience and mistakes to learn from. Selling a red-and-white striped version of the MLS product to perhaps the most loyal band of Mexican-American fans has been a tough slog, especially in the wake of the parent club winning the Mexican league's Apertura 2006 title last December in thrilling fashion.

"We're all excited to see the new Chivas USA," says keeper Brad Guzan, who has been with the team since day one. "Obviously, with Bob being gone, Preki has a big role to fill. He brings an element to the game from a player's point of view. He knows the league and understands the league. We need to be sure we show our experience in the league, show our chemistry, and get the job done."

In some ways, Chivas USA has done a good job. Success is measured in myriad ways. Some of Chivas USA's numbers are impressive: more than $4 million in local sponsorships, a league-high, sold in each of the first two seasons; average attendances of 17,080 in 2005 and 19,840 last year, both above the league average; a $10 million training complex in nearby Bell Gardens; thousands of participants in its academy, camp and player development programs.

Still, chief executive officer Javier Leon, who was born in Mexico yet attended high school and college in the United States, admits what he calls "the project" is far from the finished product. Leon is the point man for Chivas USA in the USA, conversing regularly with team president Antonio Cue, who is Vergara's partner. Like most MLS teams, Chivas USA is losing a few million dollars a year. Much of it goes to AEG, which charges the team more than $1 million per year to play in HDC and takes a percentage of the club's sponsorship sales, which it controls.

"Everything I do I consult with Antonio and every day he is in full contact with Jorge," says Leon, who worked on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch before plunging into the sports marketplace. "I have less contact with Jorge because he is in Guadalajara. We also have a board, so we try to be very institutional in the way we go about making decisions.

"Antonio moved here from Mexico to be 100 percent focused on this project, and he calls it a change in his way of life. In terms of the goals, they are significant. We recognize we need to do much better in bringing people to the stadium."

FINDING A FAN BASE. While redoubling its efforts in the Hispanic community - more than 5 million Mexican-Americans, many of them with family origins in Guadalajara, live in the Los Angeles area - Chivas USA is also soliciting support from the Anglo soccer community as an alternative to the glamorous Galaxy.

"At our games you certainly see the Hispanic community," says Leon, "but you also see Americans: blond, blue-eyed kids wearing Chivas USA shirts. I think it's great. They like the atmosphere at our games.

"With players, we need to have a very strong connection to our Chivas heritage. That's very important. We need to link ourselves, and at the same time, recognize that we're not going to be a team that plays only with Mexicans in the U.S., or only Hispanics.

"This is a different country, it has different values. It's a country of immigrants, even the Mexicans here are immigrants as well. We need to make sure we keep that heritage that we have from Chivas. We have the same uniform, the same colors. The stripes define who we are."

The policy of parent club Chivas de Guadalajara, revered south of the border for not fielding foreign players, has required serious revision to suit the realities of MLS. Many of Chivas USA's first-team players are gringos, or at least, non-Mexicans. Preki hails from Eastern Europe, though he has lived primarily in America the past two decades. Until he resigned earlier this year, Whit Haskel, an Anglo who attended Yale, guided the team's competitive and operational functions as general manager.

"Look at the makeup of the team now," says Haskel, who formerly worked for the Galaxy and occasionally still refers to Chivas USA in the first-person plural. "How many different nationalities are on the team? At the core, it will always celebrate its core values, which are very similar to Mexico: exciting, Mexican players.

"We have Claudio Suarez, the most capped player in Mexico's history. We have Paco Mendoza, who is a great story. People recognize him and respect him, and he's making it in this league, which is exciting. But at the same time, there are [Jonathan] Bornstein, [Sacha] Kljestan, Ante Razov. We're LA's team.

"The Galaxy can be the global superpower, superclub or whatever. Chivas is happy being LA's team. It reflects the ethnic mosaic of Los Angeles on the field. From day one, even during the difficult times, the club has been out in the community doing deals with Bell Gardens, or MLS Sueno, or Hundred-Hour games, and that's how you build your fan base."

Chivas USA partnered with the city of Bell Gardens (population 44,000, nearly 88 percent of which is Hispanic) to build a training complex of four fields, two of which are adorned with Chivas USA and Chivas de Guadalajara logos. MLS Sueno, a futbol version of "Survivor," drew 2,000 young aspirants eager to earn a contract, and solid TV viewership when the winner, Jorge Flores, was unveiled on the Univision show "Republica Deportiva." A benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims netted more than $60,000, and the Hundred-Hour Game - staged to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Chivas de Guadalajara last year - drew thousands of spectators and featured the mayor of Bell Gardens, Pedro Aceituno, playing in goal.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH. Chivas USA will field four developmental teams this year in addition to the under-19 team it started two years ago. Director of football Dennis te Klose runs the developmental teams, coaches the under-19 and reserve teams, and also works in the community meeting with soccer leaders.

"In our community, you need to continue to build that emotional connection that our fans have with Chivas so they can start supporting us," says Leon. "The community is not as well organized as the Anglo community. There's a huge number of independent leagues that play soccer here, but there is not one core organization or group that can give you access to all of them.

"More importantly, when you see them, they're going to ask you, 'What is Chivas going to do for us, before we actually even buy a ticket?' Maybe what we need to work on is a competition, kind of like a Chivas gaming circuit, where they can participate. They can come here and experience our game. Those are some of the things we need to do. In the end, we would have less so-called sales people and more community people."

In some ways, Chivas USA has been more successful in drawing people to events other than its MLS games. It could have tripled the number of participants in MLS Sueno by relaxing age requirements, and paying fees of $30 per child doesn't stop parents from bringing them to Chivas USA camps and clinics and tryouts by the thousands.

"There's an idea on how we think the training session and the games and the systems of play should be organized," says te Kloese, whom Chivas de Guadalajara technical director Hans Westerhof brought to Guadalajara in 2003 from Ajax. "It should be the same in recreational clinics, in the academy, in the recreational teams but also in the competitive teams. It goes all the way through the under-19 team.

"The step from one thing to another should be made as seamless as possible for the players. Hopefully we can still continue this and make it more important."

Misconceptions about the quality and style of play in MLS may have originated after the 2003 MLS season. Westerhof took a team to San Jose to play the recently crowned MLS Cup winners in a friendly, and a squad of reserves and young players beat the league champs.

Ergo, when Chivas USA joined MLS the following summer, Westerhof rolled out fringe players and untested youngsters. Aside from Ramon Ramirez and a few other proven pros, Coach Thomas Rongen had very few weapons with which to battle. Vergara's braggadocio and a simmering rivalry between the CONCACAF rivals further tightened the tensions when teams played Chivas USA. Rongen won just one of the first 10 games before Westerhof himself replaced him.

"What we realize is that this league is different from the Mexican league and that became evident the first year," says Leon. "Hans Westerhof underestimated the league, but even when he came he realized it was different. It's no so easy to bring a Mexican coach and put him here, and take certain players from Mexico and bring them here and have success."

Says Haskel, "Preki wants real soccer players. The goal for the club in this market, with everything that's going on and everything that's on TV, you've got to be compelling on the field."

One of the few players acquired north for the 2007 season is Cuban Maykel Galindo, whose blistering pace is ideally suited to MLS. Preki drafted a clever, tricky attacker, John Cutliffe out of Ft. Lewis (Colo.) College, who should appeal to fans enamored of deception and daring. So should Guevara.

"I think we want to keep Galindo high as the deep threat, and I like to come in underneath a little bit, and then Amado's in there and we have guys that can run from midfield," says Razov, the team leader in goals last year with 14. "It's constantly in motion and we like it that way, rather than static."

Time will tell if enough fans like it, too.



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