Chivas USA: A good idea that was never really tried

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?
5 comments about "Chivas USA: A good idea that was never really tried".
  1. R2 Dad, February 23, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.

    Glad you brought up this topic, because I believe variety in MLS is the only way to break through the dull mediocrity. However, the LA region is monolithic only in terms of the nationality of hispanics, not their club preference. El Tri: yes. Chivas: not necessarily. So mistake #1 was making the club Chivas instead of Mexican. I thought a generic Mexican club name with El Tri colors would have garnered much more support. Mistake #2 was thinking pulling in Liga MX players to MLS could be successful. MLS is still a league full of big beefy center backs and Dmids grinding down skill players. Most of the Mexican players are going to be smaller, slighter, less durable midfielders and forwards who are not going to fare well in that meat-grinder environment. Which leads to mistake #3: thinking Liga MX kick-and-run is a strength and not a weakness. Look at El Tri--they have been struggling, not because they've been getting worse but because CONCACAF has been getting better. If there was a chance to do something fresh and outside the confines of Mexico, the Chivas experiment was it. And I thought the hiring of Kleiban was the right move that, given enough time, would bear possession-based fruit down the road. So, Chivas has failed to take advantage of their location, fan base and derby rivalry with Galaxy, and now gets a re-boot. Garber should be more selective with his invites this next go-round, because a second failure in the massive LA market should be unthinkable. MLS only needs to look as far as the Raider-less, Ram-less NFL experience there to see how NOT to negotiate that market.

  2. Clayton Davis, February 23, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.

    It would be nice to see some variety in the style of play in MLS. I'd love to seem some more players who are technically proficient instead of just good at running all over the place until their opponents are worn out. Since MLS seems to have missed out on this opportunity for top-down changes, maybe it'll happen from the ground-up.

  3. Peter Skouras, February 23, 2014 at 8:40 p.m.

    Sorry Soccer People or "Aficionados" but I am not going to read any posts, any Paul Gardner! It's just getting "stuff" off ones chest. The issue is "TERRIBLE MANAGEMENT!" Have no clue in the Los Angeles community Legal or Not! Coaches, Office Staff and who ever else you might thing of should get work in another industry. If you can't do it in LA with an Hispanic Club you don't qualify! I'll leave the "players" out of this because they should also be looking at themselves in the mirror. Shame on all who were involved at Chivas USA and received excellent compensation...or maybe that was the reason!!!

  4. Peter Skouras, February 23, 2014 at 9:10 p.m.

    Hey Clayton...with all do you really think the MLS is Athletic? Not a chance compared to the rest of every league in the world. Reason? Relegation!!! Period...a whole different dimension. And the College game with it's 3 month season for 2-4 years? Physiology comes into play here. The bodies of the athletes are conditioned for 3 months and the brain sensors that. Hard to change when you're 22. Needs to start at 12. Anyway, no offense Clayton but that is what it is. The MLS is glorified "Amateurism!" Let's see in the World Cup...maybe the Americans will shock somebody! That is the test and will give the direction we must take!

  5. Andrzej Kowalski, February 25, 2014 at 11:23 p.m.

    In order to succed they would have to bring most starters from guadalahara team, but instead they were bringing not even an immidiate reservs but some third grade reserve players or semi retired first team players. there were no good quality mexican players in LA.
    In 2010 they could offer coaching job to Argentinian Guilermo Scalotto who was available, but instead they give coaching job to Fraizer. They could rehire for a coach Preki who did good job before but they gave job to coaches who do not know MLS.

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