The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It has been an interesting ride to watch Major League Soccer over these past eighteen-nineteen years. Much like a child it started out as being this young, exuberant new creature trying new things, learning, adapting, and evolving. But has time has worn on and it entered its teenage years things have become complicated.
The critical factor what makes a teenager from a kid to an adult is if they are able to learn from their mistakes and grow from them. On Tuesday MLS got rid of a perceived mistake when the league announced that Chivas USA would cease operations effective immediately. But is the league rectifying a wrong or are they setting themselves up for the same behaviour?
First, there is a misconception that needs to be corrected: it was a mutual decision by MLS and Chivas da Guadalajara to create Chivas USA. Clubs are not magically placed into a league. There is an expansion fee and the MLS owners have to agree to bring in a new club. It has been particularly sad to see not one MLS official go out and talk about where MLS failed Chivas USA and their supporters.
Perhaps the reason for this is because the American soccer press has done such an exemplary job exposing this team’s flaws. For those that may not be aware, C.D. Guadalajara is a club in Liga MX whose claim to fame is that they as a side do not sign non-Mexican players.
This very large oversight made the Chivas USA team from the beginning a difficult fit, as it appeared that MLS believed this team could help them crack open the Latino market. In 2004, MLS Commissioner Don Garber (yes the same guy who is still running MLS,) said the following to New York Times:
For many Hispanics, the game is part of their souls — they paint their faces, they chant, they sing soccer songs. There is more on the line in the game; it is not about statistics and fantasy leagues. Ethnic fans see the game as a competition for pride.
A very nice sentiment. Only one problem: Chivas is one of the most polar teams in all of Mexico. Chivas is loved by many in Mexico, but it is based in a city in central Mexico, very far away from Los Angeles. But when you consider the proximity of L.A. to a city like Tijuana (136 miles) you are more likely to find fans of Tijuana.
One other thing to consider about getting Latino voters: not all of the Latinos in Los Angeles are Mexican. While the 2010 Census does show that there are 3.5 million Mexicans in Los Angeles County, there are about 1.1 million non-Mexican Latinos in the area. There may be many among this population who like C.D.Guadalajara, expatriates from Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador are always tied to their home squad.
Imagine if MLS decided to put a team in New York City and set up an agreement with Manchester City F.C. Wouldn’t it be odd to suggest that supporters for Premier League teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Chelsea should give up their colors and support a team owned by one of their fiercest rivals. That would be a silly arrangement for MLS, right?
Oh wait that has already happened.
Now this is not to say that Chivas USA could never have worked. In fact, it did. Although the club’s first season was a losing try, the club did having a winning season in five consecutive years (2004-2009) and winning the 2007 Western Conference regular season title. It is a team where Bob Bradley and Preki coached the side to glory and players like goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Aston Villa) and midfielder Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht) started their professional career.
But things started to unravel once owner Jorge Vergara became the sole owner of the club. While Vegara is lauded for his efforts for making C.D. Guadalajara a profitable club after years of massive financial debt (although they too have struggled in recent years,) Chivas USA was treated as a farm team.
Spending was also drastically cut. According to figures released by the MLS Players Union in 2013 (MLS does not release salary figures) Chivas USA ranked last in player spending with a total base salary of $2.38 million. Among guaranteed compensation, Chivas spent $2.4 million, $750,000 short of the second-worst team, the Colorado Rapids.
Of course the charges of racism on Vergara by former assistants Ted Chronopoulis and Dan Calichman did not help the team’s cause.
By no means is this meant to demonize the Chivas USA players. As someone who has watched this team since their inception they have always been a side that would make do with what they had and give every match their all.
It is a team that in even in their last season had two players play in the World Cup (Oswaldo Minda and Marvin Chavez) and has developed one of the league’s brightest talents, forward Erick “Cubo” Torres (15 goals in 2014). Younger players like Marky Delgado (U.S. U-20 National Team Player) and midfielder Thomas McNamara also have bright futures ahead of them.
The supporters have also been nothing but class acts throughout this whole process. After being made the ward of the state of MLS (the league bought out Vergara in February 2014,) the Chivas USA supporters group, the Black Army 1850 and the Union Unltras, continued to go to every to hit their loud drums and to make as much noise as possible.
I remember covering a D.C. United home game earlier in the season when the side took on Chivas U.S.A. There was one supporter from Chivas in attendance. He was sitting in front of the press box beating his loud drum and acting as if he was a supporter group of 1000 and not one. A Quixotic moment for sure and left a favorable impression upon me of the pride the Chivas U.S.A supporters had in their club.
One would hope that MLS would learn from this circumstance and try to improve their choices of who they do business with in the future. There is a gamble that the league takes with each franchise that they create. There are no soft landings to lower divisions for MLS sides; they either do well or they are folded (see Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny).
Still, the question has to be asked whether or not ending the Chivas USA franchise and bringing in a new team to the Los Angeles area will make MLS a better league. While the team could not remain Chivas USA, this will be the league’s fifth expansion team over the next three years. For a league that has struggled to develop a style of play that one would see as being quality, adding five new franchises will saturate the product.
MLS has shown in recent years that it can succeed in difficult markets when it builds things organically, when it finds owners who are patient and interested in the long-terms success of soccer. Teams like Real Salt Lake, the Columbus Crew, and F.C. Dallas have been owned by multiple owner groups and evolved and become better for it. But they were never taken apart and sold for scrap. Chivas USA was salvageable.
There is also the question of who will be taking over the Los Angeles squad. After dealing with Vergara, one would expect the league to bring in ownership that is benevolent and willing to a create a product that is different from the Los Angeles Galaxy.
It seems that the league has found that person and that person is….Vincent Tan, the owner of Cardiff City who changed the team’s badge after 100 years of having the same badge, changed the team colours and logo, and once told their supporters:
I say the fans must be asked to use their heads and brains to think, not make decisions from the heart. Sometimes, when you make decisions from the heart, you don’t think straight.
It looks like MLS still has some growing up to do.