By Ridge Mahoney
Every year or so, it seems, comes time to write about the new direction taken by Chivas USA.
An MLS team wearing the colors of a beloved Mexican enterprise didn’t thrill the souls of most Guadalajara supporters who live in Southern California, so since its expansion season of 2005 it has tried to re-brand several times: as a partly Mexican Latino club; as a populist team contrasted with the elitist Galaxy; and most recently, as just another MLS team that happens to wear Chivas-esque jerseys.
Nothing has worked, so in the past few months, it has turned again, and apparently completed a full circle Wednesday with the confirmation that Mexican-born Jose Luis Sanchez Sosa (“El Chelis”) has been hired as head coach. His six years of coaching experience in the Mexican league includes a long stint at Puebla, which he led to promotion from the Liga de Ascenso (second division). His last two stops were as head coach of Estudiantes de la UAG in 2011 and Correcaminos UAT this past season.
“We are going to try to implement a more appealing style of soccer for our fans, without forgetting we are a team that plays in the United States,” Sanchez Sola said in a statement. “We will look to appeal to both cultures while obtaining positive results for the club.”
Predecessor Robin Fraser failed on all counts and was dismissed with a 15-32-20 record during his two seasons in charge, which followed a dismal 2010 campaign (8-18-4) mentored by Martin Vazquez. A few months ago, the team announced Vergara – along with his wife, Angelica Fuentes – had taken full control.
Specifics weren’t provided but several sources indicated that former partner Antonio Cue, unable to sustain the seven-figure losses incurred by the team every year, had simply run out of available funds. Those sources also confirmed league officials had taken an active role in assisting operations of the franchise – which has one of the smallest staffs in the league – during the season, but that once Cue had been ousted, Vergara took command and directed the hiring of Sanchez Sola with the apparent intent of renewing its Mexican roots.
“The arrival of Jose Luis Sanchez Sola marks the beginning of our organization’s new journey,” said team president and chief business officer Jose David. “The owners of the club, Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes, continue working toward giving Chivas USA fans the experience and results needed to have a successful team in MLS. ‘El Chelis’ is a great motivator; he knows the culture of Chivas and will be an important piece in re-establishing the identity of the organization.”
The team’s problems go deeper than its struggles on the field; it qualified for the playoffs four straight years under Bob Bradley (2006) and Preki (2007-9), but never got past the first round and seldom ignited the kind of widespread excitement and energy MLS had hoped for when it introduced Vergara and his American-based partner Cue as operator-investors.
Vergara famously claimed at the time his team would “teach the gringos how to play soccer.” But neither Guadalajara youth team coach Hans Westerhof nor veteran MLS and U.S. Soccer coach Thomas Rongen could implement that plan, nor could a squad that included a few backup players that had deceived Vergara by beating a makeshift San Jose Earthquakes lineup in an offseason friendly.
Bradley, assisted by Preki, revamped the team and got it into the playoffs, and when he departed to coach the U.S. national team, Preki maintained the postseason presence though he squabbled with team management over personnel moves. Vazquez, the first man to play for Mexico and the USA national teams at the senior level, tried to meld those two soccer cultures to disastrous effect. Fraser, a former U.S. international defender who cut his teeth as a Real Salt Lake assistant coach, implemented major changes but few panned out.
Despite those four playoff appearances, Chivas USA hasn’t fully recovered from those initial stumbles and miscalculations. It is vividly disproving the axiom that “a rising tide floats all boats.” As much of the league steams ahead, Chivas USA takes on water.
After he visited Chivas USA in March, MLS president Mark Abbott denied rumors that the team was in financial trouble and could be bought out by the league at some point. Those rumors resurfaced in the past few months, but Vergara’s takeover and hiring of Sanchez Sola indicates that the team will stay for the time being at Home Depot Center, where its lease has two more years to run.
While he has acknowledged an intent to find another home for his team, Vergara has not made any public statement about a possible destination. It doesn’t seem likely MLS would approve a Chivas USA setup in another market so his limited options seem to be: a) find a suitable location in Southern California, be it a new facility or an existing one such as the Los Angeles Coliseum or the Rose Bowl; or b) sell the franchise license back to MLS, which would then re-sell it to another ownership group.
With eager ownership groups in several cities, including Orlando and San Antonio, MLS must consider eliminating stragglers like Chivas USA if it insists on delaying expansion plans once it adds a 20th team in New York City. But for better or worse, in 2013 it’s back to the past for los Rojoblancos del Norte.
“I feel that Chivas USA, at some point, lost that flavor and technique with the ball that is emphasized in Mexico and Latin America,” said Sanchez Sola. “We must re-establish that part and combine it with the MLS’ style of play.”