By Ridge Mahoney
I’m getting a real laugh out of all these fans and pundits wringing their hands about Chivas USA and imploring MLS commissioner Don Garber to do something.
MLS has been trying to “do something” for nearly a year. As was reported by Soccer America in December and subsequently confirmed by other media outlets and Garber himself, the league has provided personnel and resources to assist the team in its operations as well as selling tickets and sponsorships.
Periodic visits to Southern California by MLS president Mark Abbott and other executives last year were explained by the league as assistance in the buyout by owner Jorge Vergara of his partners, Antonio and Lorenzo Cue. I’m not sure I completely buy that, pun intended.
It seems a monumental waste of time to have such a powerful and important person as Abbott, the league’s point man on issues such as expansion and stadium projects, to help facilitate an in-house transaction. But, of course, as a single-entity league, MLS retains control of all of its teams with a 50.1 percent ownership stake , so these already complicated deals would need greater oversight at the league level.
Whether rumors of MLS inquiring about buying back the team from Vergara – a price of $25 million has been cited by a Southern California source with ties to the team -– have any grain of truth or not, his decision to again re-brand Chivas USA with a strong Mexican/CD Guadalajara identity is off to a terrible start on and off the field. A dismal crowd announced at 7,121 – which was probably closer to 5,000, if that – watched a 3-0 loss to Columbus Saturday night at Home Depot Center.
And what can the league do? Since it technically owns all of the teams, MLS has, theoretically, greater leverage in dictating the course of Chivas USA. That’s the theoretical. The practical is radically different.
Remember all the whining and crying from fans and journalists -- not to mention a few coaches and general managers – during the league’s early years about it excessively controlling, and thus suppressing, certain teams? League-run teams were a staple of the league until it “contracted” Tampa Bay, and found owners for Dallas and San Jose.
It wasn’t that long ago that just three ownership groups -- the Phil Anschutz empire and the Kraft and Hunt families -- were the only stakeholders in MLS. (The Hunt family took over the Dallas Burn in 2002; it started out as a league-run team.)
As it has expanded and widened its ownership to the current roster of 18 operator-investor groups, MLS has ceded greater autonomy to its teams. They can now develop their own players and sign them rather than relying exclusively on league-run mechanisms – player drafts, discoveries, weighted lotteries, etc. – and there’s little question the diversity of management philosophies has created teams of varied identities.
Los Angeles and New York are going to spend the most, Columbus, Dallas and San Jose are among the most frugal. Sporting Kansas City built a futuristic facility, the Quakes’ new stadium won’t be as lavish. There are stadiums that serve as centerpieces of a soccer complex (Colorado and Dallas), and a multisport facility (Home Depot Center).
But granting greater autonomy comes at a price, literally. When it approved Miami as an expansion team and accepted a fee of $20 million from Ken Horowitz, MLS took on a partner who ultimately couldn’t afford to keep the Fusion going. The price for an expansion team had dropped to $10 million by the time Vergara came aboard in 2004, though he also paid a fee of several million to set up shop in the AEG-controlled HDC.
The league has revamped its financial rules so that losses are not shared more or less equally, as was the case when operations started in 1996. If your bottom line is hurting, you’re on the hook for a lot more of it than is, say, Seattle. The league is in a real pickle with Chivas USA, since it operates at the behest of an all-powerful Galaxy, which collects lease payments whether or not its tenant wins a game or draws a fan.
MLS knew full well what Vergara had in mind at the time; to parlay the glorious history of CD Guadalajara into a Southern California branch office. Maybe he and the Cues believed the striped jerseys and a fearsome Chivas mascot would translate into regular attendance by at least a portion of the Southland audience, and for a few seasons, Chivas USA actually did draw decent crowds and reach the playoffs (2006-09).
But fortunes are not just trending downwards, they’ve apparently plummeted off a cliff. Three straight bad seasons have driven fans away. Former staff members who have talked to current members say there’s great uncertainty and anxiety inside the team’s offices, and if Vergara has a long-range plan in mind he’s not sharing it. Play elsewhere in L.A., move, sell?
There’s been outrage at the club’s jettisoning of non-Hispanic players, but claims of discrimination in this regard are unfounded. MLS teams can sign a lot of international players as well as green-card holders, and Jose Luis Sanchez Sola and Vergara are perfectly within league rules if they want to sign players of Mexican origin. The same could be done, say, in Montreal, if it wanted to stock those slots solely with Canadians or Italians or Frenchmen, or with any combination thereof.
Now, what the team cannot do is discriminate by language in its hiring of workers. It would be difficult to prove that a player was cut or traded, for example, because he didn’t speak Spanish, if such suspicions did arise. Competitive reasons could always be cited.
That Vergara has come full circle back to that original premise of a Guadalajara identity after several re-brands, and now MLS must somehow balance its adherence to greater autonomy with a financial sinkhole that is also a public-relations eyesore. But Vergara is the boss, and to a great extent he can do whatever he wants, whatever that may be.
In the modern era of MLS, it’s his mess to clean up. At least for now.