Chivas USA's identity crisis

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.

1 comment about "Chivas USA's identity crisis".
  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, April 28, 2008 at 5:40 p.m.

    Dude, Painful...
    For starters, I am no Chivas USA fan (or Chivas d. G) but it's pretty clear you didn't watch more than 1 or 2 of their matches last year. They were the Arsenal of MLS. Their styles was a possession style (like Latin soccer is) and it was flowing (like Latin soccer is) They were the prettiest team to watch last year and I found myself watching as many of their games as I did of my own team (Chicago Fire).

    Also, your article conveniently fails to mention how CUSA started it's like with a LOT of Mexican players, made no dent in the market in LA because they were losing.

    One other think that has to be noted here is, while there are some 12-20 million 'new' guests from south of the border, not all of them are Chivas fans, and not all Chivas fans are going to support CUSA no matter what as they see it as a whole separate club a fact that will come into sharp relief when the 2 clubs have to play each other this year in SuperLiga.
    It would be like an American Football team starting up in Europe named the Green Bay Packers Germany expecting all Americans there to embrace them. I would rather gouge my own eyes out than ever support a team named after that organization.

    The Elliott question you pass off as misguided and dumb isn't quite as much as you may think. While winning and having Latino players aren't mutually exclusive, there is a mindset in some communities. Look no further than Chicago who have a small but vocal Polish fanbase that believes the inclusion of a single Polish player would reinvigorate the mythical giant population of Poles in Chicago (the plurality of People there are Germany-FYI) but the attendance has seen no bump with the inclusion of Frankowski who has national team caps and is performing pretty well at the moment.
    Elliott, while perhaps not phrasing the question properly, was on to something. There are segments of the population who believe that adding a Hispanic player, any Hispanic player not the RIGHT Hispanic player, is going to get a huge bump in attendance and make them beloved in the community and that simply has been proven false time and again in cities all over MLS.
    If you want a prime example of a team that is beloved for winning look no further than Dallas' neighbors to the south Houston. I believe they still only have a single Hispanic player in Carraccio and their attendance is one of the better ones in the league. The simple fact, as Houston has proved, that if you win consistently and do it with a little style, the fans will come out. If Houston had 10 washed up Mexican players like CUSA had in their first 2 years, they wouldn't be doing nearly as well despite being in an area that has TONS of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

    Winning and style bring out fans. Ethnic pandering flames out faster than anything else a team can try. Get better players to play attractive football and you will see attendance bumps.

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