By Paul Gardner
Adios Chivas USA. A pity, that. But I can’t make much of an argument in their favor -- both on and off the field, they have slowly sunk into sub-mediocrity. And when results and attendances and income evaporate, what is a league to do?
Presumably, what MLS has done: Buy the club from the current owners, and operate it until new owners are found. Which, according to Commissioner Don Garber, could well be this year. So, maybe, no harm done. Maybe.
Having one of its club’s default can hardly be good for a league, but Garber conducted himself with poise and authority during his report on the matter ... and, it seemed to me, almost gave the impression that new owners had already been found and a deal -- including the construction of a new stadium -- was in the offing.
OK -- that’s no doubt exactly how Garber would want to sound anyway, but this was a particularly impressive performance in dealing with a tricky situation. How much more impressive Garber is when he talks of MLS administrative or financial issues, then when he talks of soccer.
But the soccer is what interests me here. The original idea behind Chivas USA -- his idea, says Garber -- was a good one. To bring in a Mexican-owned team that would play Mexican-style soccer and would thus attract a big following among the many Mexican-Americans in Southern California.
Not just any Mexican team. The owner of Chivas USA was Jorge Vergara, who also owned Chivas Guadalajara, arguably Mexico’s best-supported club. Of course, there was always the suggestion that the parent club would be willing to lend some of its players to Chivas USA.
So the new MLS club started off with what looked like two huge assets: A pipeline of good players from Mexico, and an already-existing fan base in Los Angeles. The arrival of Chivas USA was also good news because MLS needs some variation, it has too many clubs devoted to playing standard European no-frills soccer. Even just one club devoted to something different, to a different style, was welcome.
But the good idea crumbled before it ever got started. If you want a Mexican style team, why on earth appoint Dutchman Thomas Rongen as the coach? Rongen lasted just over two months of the inaugural 2005 season, winning only one game out of 10, before he got booted upstairs, and interim coach Javier Ledesma took over for a couple of games before another Dutchman, Hans Westerhof, took over -- but this Dutchman had been working in Mexico with the parent club Chivas of Guadalajara.
Westerhof lasted out the 2005 season, then returned to Mexico. Chivas USA had finished the season with the worst record in the league. Next came a stark alert that the idea of a Mexican-style team had now been totally abandoned. Enter Bob Bradley as the new coach. Bradley’s record as a successful MLS coach with the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls was indisputable. But so were the fact that he did not speak Spanish, and his palpable lack of interest in Hispanic players. Mexican soccer? Forget it.
Bradley departed after one season -- Chivas USA made the playoffs, but in terms of playing style, the team was now looking like an average MLS team. The coaching comings-and-goings continued. Former MLS star Preki lasted three seasons (2007-2009), then came Martin Vasquez (2010) and Robin Fraser (2011-2012). Last year, Chivas USA had a succession of three Mexican coaches, but the team seemed beyond hope.
It was, as it had been in its first year, the worst team in MLS. Wilmer Cabrera came in as coach at the beginning of this year -- he will stay at least for this season.
What happened to the Mexican soccer? Whose fault was it that nothing like that happened? Ultimately, I’d say the blame has to sit on the shoulders of owner Jorge Vergara, who oversaw the appointment of a string of unsuitable coaches. At the end of the club’s first season, 2005, the attempt to field youngsters and oldsters from parent club Chivas Guadalajara -- in effect, players not needed there -- was a total failure. Either Vergara had overestimated the caliber of his Mexicans, or he had failed to appreciate the level of MLS play.
Whichever -- probably both -- Vergara panicked and the move away from things Mexican -- both players and coaches -- began. Results got a bit better -- the club made the playoffs for four consecutive years (2006-2009), but was immediately eliminated in each year.
As a club playing Mexican-style soccer, one that the many Chivas fans in the USA could identify with, Chivas USA had ceased to exist. In its final game of the 2011 season, Chivas USA started only four Hispanic players -- a Venezuelan, a Brazilian, an Argentine and a Colombian. No Mexicans.
Nothing was done by the Vergara ownership to bring in better Mexican players, so the original idea was dead. “The Chivas USA concept did not work out,” said Vergara, stressing that all his efforts and resources would now be devoted to the Guadalajara Chivas.
The end came just as Chivas USA at last began to take on a Mexican look -- the team ended the 2013 season with 3 Mexicans and 5 Americans of Mexican descent among the starters. One of the Mexicans -- the 20-year-old Erick Torres -- seemed to personify the opportunity that had been missed: A highly skilled young midfielder, a playmaker and goalscorer, on loan from parent club Chivas Guadalajara. Precisely the sort of player who must have been envisaged for the original idea.
Then again, maybe Torres represents part of the problem with the Chivas link-up. Because his sparkling form for Chivas USA last year has duly been noted down in Mexico. Torres’s loan deal ends in June. He will be promptly recalled to Guadalajara, says Vergara.
Chivas USA, undeniably, has failed, victim of a lack of faith on the part of Vergara. But the original idea -- of a team designed to please Mexican-American fans -- seems to me still valid. My hope is that it will be continued by whoever the new owners may be. The franchise is to stay in Los Angeles, so why wouldn’t they take aim at the Mexican-American fans?