Tonight, HBO Real Sports aired a feature on Chivas USA, highlighting two former coaches that are suing the organization for discrimination and wrongful termination. The Soledad O'Brien piece represented the most publicity that the team has received in years. It also illustrated the sad state of affairs for MLS' most troubled franchise.
I did some consulting work for Chivas USA in parts of 2009 and 2010, so I have some degree of familiarity with the organization. It's a team that has always struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. Originally founded by Chivas Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara and the Cue family in Mexico, Chivas USA was supposed to build off its Mexican roots and be "Hispanic America's Team." That never quite worked out though.
Chivas Guadalajara is considered by many to be the "Yankees of Mexico" and they are famous for only having players of Mexican descent. While most Mexican soccer teams employ players from other Latin American countries and from Europe, Chivas has always been a source of pride for many Mexican soccer fans.
In its first season in 2005, building off the philosophy of its parent club, Chivas USA acquired as many Mexican and Mexican-American players as possible. They exclusively marketed to the Mexican community, alienating pretty much everyone else. The results were disastrous. The team finished 4-22-6, and attendance was poor.
There were several incorrect assumptions that Chivas USA made right off the bat. First, they thought that all Hispanics in the US would embrace the team. But since the Chivas brand is so closely tied to Mexican nationalism, it's not particularly popular with non-Mexican Hispanics. Furthermore, since Chivas Guadalajara is considered the "Yankees of Mexico," that means they're both the most loved and hated team in the country. People who are fans of Club America (arguably the "Red Sox of Mexico") despise the Chivas brand, along with fans of other Mexican rivals. So Chivas USA could essentially only appeal to a segment of Mexican fans in Los Angeles.
But many Mexican fans view Major League Soccer as inferior to their own nation's league. They see Chivas USA as a minor league team at best, and they give it scant attention. These were all findings I discovered through countless interviews with soccer fans and Chivas fans throughout Los Angeles.
This "minor league" view of Chivas also led to Vergara's second incorrect assumption. He attempted to use Chivas USA as essentially a farm club for Chivas Guadalajara, sending players to LA on loan. While most soccer experts would consider Liga MX to be a stronger league than MLS, the US-based soccer league is much more competitive than some fans would like to believe. It's certainly stronger than the Mexican lower division leagues, so "minor leaguers" aren't going to have much success. And restricting a team to one ethnicity is not an intelligent way to build a roster.
After its first season failures, Chivas USA realized it needed a more open-minded approach to both marketing and player personnel. They brought in Bob Bradley as head coach for a year, and then Preki, and the organization reached the playoffs in four straight seasons. Shawn Hunter, a well-respected sports executive became CEO of the team. Under him, Chivas made significant inroads in the community, brought in a slew of quality sponsors, and its attendance figures were in the upper half of the league. At one point, Chivas had the MLS' most diverse roster, boasting players from nine different countries.
However, Hunter left at the end of the 2010 season, and part-owner Antonio Cue took over as president of the team. Cue was unable to build upon the foundation that Hunter laid, as attendance remained flat and the team struggled on the field. He was also unable to make significant strides towards a new stadium, something that many believed was necessary for Chivas USA to succeed. While StubHub Center (formerly Home Depot Center) is one of the best stadiums in MLS, there was a prevailing sentiment that Chivas needed its own place to play - apart from the Galaxy - where it could create a true home field advantage and generate more in-stadium revenues.
It was perhaps this frustration that led Vergara - the brash Steinbrenner-like owner of Chivas Guajalajara - to buy out the Cue family's share and take over Chivas USA at the end of last season. However, Vergara's tenure has been an embarrassment. Vergara went back to the same strategy of acquiring as many Mexican and Mexican-American players as possible, and the team is in last place with a 4-11-5 record. After a 14-game winless streak, it recently won its first game since March.
Vergara has also gone back to exclusively marketing to the Mexican community only, and attendance has seen a dramatic fall, dropping from over 13,000 a game to just over 8,700 a game. Many reporters covering games claim that the actual figure is probably in the 3,000 range. It doesn't help that Chivas USA is the only team in MLS without a local TV deal (in English or Spanish), which is a pretty shocking failure.
Yet, the organization appears to be both arrogant and clueless at the same time. In a fairly pathetic attempt at damage control, Chivas sent Director of Soccer Juan Francisco Palencia to interview with HBO for only 15 minutes. In the interview, he said "the numbers are good now" referring to the team's record. They've also sent out several bizarre press releases that have been reported on by the LA Times' Kevin Baxter, one after they fired their coach in May, and another in response to the allegations of discrimination.
Vergara's actions have proven that you cannot divide Los Angeles by race or ethnicity. Los Angeles is the nation's most diverse city, and sports is supposed to be one of the things that brings people of all types together. The Los Angeles Galaxy have a name that symbolizes the many cultures that make up Southern California. It has been the MLS' glamor team from the start, employing top caliber players from around the world and winning four championships. It has succeeded by being open and inclusive. Chivas USA and Vergara have failed by being exclusive and only going after a segment of the Los Angeles market.
I've always felt that there were two things necessary for Chivas USA to be successful in Los Angeles. The first is that it needs to change its name to "Chivas Los Angeles." The organization cannot claim to represent the people of LA and attract fans in LA without having "Los Angeles" in its name. While Chivas initially wanted to appeal to all Hispanic soccer fans in the US, its sister club "Chivas Guadalajara" is a source of national pride with its home city still in the name.
Second, Chivas needs to market itself as the one place where you can get an international soccer experience in LA. A few years ago, before attendance really fell, Chivas USA games offered a fun and vibrant atmosphere with fans cheering and chanting in both English and Spanish. The team may have had a smaller crowd than the Galaxy, but it was louder, more energetic, and diverse. Building off its Mexican roots, the organization was in the process of creating a truly unique brand, where an international soccer club atmosphere was possible. But the recent failings by Vergara have made those days seem like a distant memory.
With the team's latest string of embarrassing headlines, rumors persist that MLS will force the team to be sold, possibly to a group that will move it to another city. There are groups in Atlanta, Orlando, Phoenix, St. Louis, Miami, and several other cities that have been trying to get an MLS team for years. And if that happens, then it's likely that Chivas USA's departure will barely register a blip on the LA sports richter scale. It's a team that has made the same mistake twice and alienated numerous soccer fans in just a very short time.