Chivas USA: Farewell to a mistake

I was wrong.

When Chivas USA was announced as an MLS expansion team, I thought fans would greet it warmly. At home, they would draw solid crowds. On the road, the crowds would get a boost from the Chivas fans scattered across the country. That didn’t happen. As the years went by, it was clear that Chivas fans just focused on the original Chivas in Mexico, and other Mexican fans had no interest in cheering for a team wearing their rivals’ shirts.

And it was pretty clear that the young Mexican players who saw the field in that first Chivas USA season weren’t going to get it done against experienced MLS pros. The idea of a pipeline of talent between Guadalajara and Los Angeles never materialized.

The team did better when it eased away from the Chivas-lite motif. Bob Bradley and Preki coached the Americanized Chivas to winning records and playoff berths. Brad Guzan emerged as a top U.S. goalkeeping prospect. Scrappy American players led the way — Ante Razov, Sacha Kljestan, and Jesse Marsch among them. The youth academy was promising. A few Mexican players, especially veteran defender Claudio Suarez, added to a healthy mix of talent.

But the team decayed after 2009. When Jorge Vergara bought out his partners and decided to renew the focus on being a little bit of Guadalajara in Los Angeles, the end was near.

MLS has done the right thing here in taking over the team for a transitional year. If you insist on relating everything to English business models, pretend the team is in “administration.”

Cynics are already tearing down NYC FC, figuring its ties to Manchester City will spell doom for the same reasons Chivas USA failed. I doubt it. I think the mistakes can be easily avoided.

But I’ve been wrong before.

After team’s sale, Jorge Vergara admits “Chivas USA concept did not work out” | MLSsoccer.com.

Chivas USA vs. Employment Law USA

chivas-fadeDan Calichman and Ted Chronopoulos, whom many of us remember from 1990s MLS, are in the news as the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Chivas USA. C&C Coaching Factory had done pretty well with the club’s academy program, only to be dismissed midseason.

At the time, Top Drawer Soccer’s J.R. Eskilson and The Goat Parade’s Alicia Ratterree were concerned:

We may look back at this story and see that it is just a blip and won’t impact the long term development of the Academy and Chivas USA’s first team. But there is going to be turmoil in the short term, whether that means scaring potential recruits away, or actually sending current talented Academy players to other destinations.

In the medium term, as it turns out, it’s a bit more than a blip. It’s a case of employment law. Calichman and Chronopoulos say they were fired because they’re “non-Latino Americans.”

Chivas USA isn’t the first soccer team in the USA or Canada to bill itself with a specific ethnic identity. The U.S. Open Cup is full of names like Maccabi Los Angeles, Philadelphia Ukrainians, Brooklyn Italians, etc. The NASL of the 1970s tried to keep ethnic marketing to a minimum but nevertheless tolerated “Toronto Metros-Croatia” for a while. Some teams such as the St. Louis Stars and Philadelphia Atoms boasted of their Americanization, and U.S. players gathered as “Team America” near the end of the league’s lifespan.

Such historical idiosyncrasies surely won’t help Chivas USA and owner Jorge Vergara, who bought out his former partners last year, in this case. They could, perhaps, argue that they’re simply instilling a new style of play, and that Calichman and Chronopoulos didn’t fit in. That’s not unusual. Players and coaches alike can be sent packing when a team tries to play a different way.

That argument would be interesting if it went to court. But that’s probably not how it’ll play out. Not given some of the more incendiary parts of the complaint:

After publicly identifying those employees who did not speak Spanish, (Vergara) announced that those employees who did not speak Spanish would no longer be able to work at CHIVAS USA. As he further stated, “If you don’t speak Spanish, you can go work for the Galaxy, unless you speak Chinese, which is not even a language.”

The next quote in the complaint is from Chivas USA HR director Cynthia Craig: “Oh boy. I can’t believe he just said that.”

Chronopoulos was then asked to survey everyone in the Academy, players and parents, to get their ethnic and national backgrounds. Shortly thereafter, Chronopoulos and Calichman filed complaints with Craig. They met not just with Craig, but with team president Jose David, who presided over one of the most awkward non-firings this side of The Office.

MR. CHRONOPOULOS asked if he was being fired. Ms. Craig responded, “No; you are not being fired,” but cryptically added, “We will be sending you some options in a few days.” Mr. David, however, interrupted and announced that they would send him some options by the very next day. Despite being told he was not being fired, he was also told not to return to his coaching duties.

A standoff continued for nearly two months.

Not mentioned in that complaint: Chivas USA hired a new U18 Academy coach to replace Calichman. A man of notable Mexican heritage? Well, not exactly.

They hired Keith Costigan, the Irishman turned Fox Soccer commentator.

Will that hiring help Chivas USA stave off discrimination accusations? Or will Chivas USA try to settle this quickly and quietly?

And once the case is resolved, what’s the future of Chivas USA? If you’re in the MLS front office or another MLS owner’s office, are you pushing for the team to be sold as quickly as possible?

The Chivas USA delusion

Starting with a confession: I was wrong about Chivas USA. I thought the brand name would draw fans. I thought they’d come up with enough Mexican or Mexican-ish players to compete with a different style.

That didn’t go so well. After an awful first year, they became competitive under the non-Mexican coach Bob Bradley and stayed competitive under Preki, who grew up about as far away from Mexico in the geographical and cultural sense as possible.

Their best players were mostly U.S. college alumni: Ante Razov, Brad Guzan, Sacha Kljestan, Jonathan Bornstein and Jesse Marsch. They had a couple of solid Mexican players in Francisco Palencia (briefly), Claudio Suarez and Ramon Ramirez, but everywhere else, they were a basic MLS team.

In the past three years, they’ve ceased to be competitive. The personnel decisions haven’t been great. The good news: Their Academy program is solid, getting good marks in most categories in U.S. Soccer’s tough evaluations.

So now owner Jorge Vergara is going back to the club’s shallow roots, pledging to be more Mexican and less like a typically physical MLS team.

They may eventually get out of their ground-sharing situation at the Home Depot Center, which would be a step in the right direction. But it may not be far enough to get out of the shadow of the Galaxy.

Turning away from the “physical” style in MLS would be attractive. But it’s not as if Chivas USA was a nice, friendly team when it was more Mexican. They were third in the league in fouls in their debut season. (They dropped off over the next couple of years, then led the league in fouls under Preki in 2009.)

They didn’t work — on the field or at the box office — as a Chivas de Guadalajara “B” team of sorts. They were a bit better as a more conventional MLS team with a couple of prominent Mexican players. Put that team in an area in which fans can’t or don’t get to many Galaxy games, and you have a strong MLS presence.

Has Vergara learned enough from his first attempt with the team to do it a little differently this time? We’ll see. But it’ll depend on whether he goes back to what works, not what didn’t.