Chivas USA Inching Toward Independence
We can only hope that Chivas USA took a small but symbolic step toward independence late Tuesday night when it edged Mexican power and Copa Libertadores runner-up Chivas de Guadalajara on penalty kicks before more than 22,000 fans at Petco Park.
The home of the San Diego Padres was a fitting setting for the MLS club's little rebellion. Chivas de Guadalajara has been its Daddy in more ways than one. Owner Jorge Vergara (along with partner Antonio Cué) launched the Los Angeles-based club in 2004 in an effort to extend the Chivas brand to the millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in Southern California.
Initially, that was about all they cared about. Supplied with third-rate players, Chivas USA stumbled to one of the worst seasons in MLS history (4-22-6) in its inaugural campaign. Coach/sacrificial lamb Thomas Rongen told me a couple of years ago that he "should have put my foot down" regarding the players he was supplied. He called it a "group I didn't think was very talented but that clearly represented the Mexican community quite well."
To the club's credit, they quickly corrected the mistake. Cué brought in some real players, including plenty of Americans, and the junior Goats made the playoffs each of the next four years.
I've been fascinated by the Chivas USA concept since they joined MLS. Initially, there was the thought that the franchise might be the catalyst for a wave of investment by foreign clubs looking for an American foothold. That hasn't happened.
Even more compelling was the team's identity. Who goes to a party and gives the middle finger to 75% of the guests upon arrival? That is, in essence, what Chivas USA did. Their Mexican name and Spanish-first policy certainly wouldn't endear the club to American fans, while the affiliation with the parent club and red-and-white striped jerseys would turn off every Mexican who loved to hate Chivas.
Chivas USA became the bad guy. The outcast. And to make things even more difficult, they were a tenant in their own stadium, doomed to play second-fiddle at the Home Depot Center to the cosmopolitan Los Angeles Galaxy. Chivas USA was not a club that seemed interested in establishing permanent links with a wide range of supporters.
Attendance has been decent, with more than 16,000 fans showing up per game last season, but the club continues to be Major League Soccer's forgotten and wandering stepchild. It doesn't belong to Los Angeles, Guadalajara, Mexican Chivas fans (there are only three Mexicans on the current roster), Mexican Chivas haters or Americans (despite its name). Chivas needs a home.
Back when I wrote a feature on the evolving nature of the club for the now defunct MajorLeagueSoccer magazine, Rongen said this: "They're a team that's won on the field but cannot capture that imagination of their fanbase, which is somewhat Mexican, but they think now that Chivas USA is not a team that represents them. The Anglo crowd, which they didn't really cater to, has stayed away."
Not much has changed. But it might soon.
Chivas USA President and CEO Shawn Hunter said following the game in San Diego that the club is looking into leaving Home Depot Center and building its own stadium.
"We've said all along at some point in the future when it makes sense, we'd love to have our own venue. Every club wants to have its own stadium, control its own destiny, have its own identity, and that is true for Chivas USA," he told the Los Angeles Daily News. Hunter said the club has "three or four" discussions ongoing with "different communities" throughout the sprawling Los Angeles area.
Escaping the Galaxy's very large shadow and heading south to San Diego isn't an option, despite the easy access to Mexican fans and the very large TV ratings the city generated during the World Cup. "We want to be the team for all of Southern California," Hunter said. "L.A. is our home. We're happy to be in L.A."
The L.A. megamegalopolis is huge, and certainly can support two teams in the same sport. It has dual representation in the NBA (Lakers and Clippers), NHL (Kings and Ducks), Major League Baseball (Dodgers and Angels) and professional football (USC and UCLA). Maintaining a crosstown Galaxy-Chivas rivalry, which was just about the best advertisement for MLS until Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders came along, is also a good idea.
"We've said all along that when the right opportunity presents itself, we'd like to build our own stadium. We had a lot of great conversations going two years ago and then the economy crashed. We've kind of started those again, but all the conversations we're having are in L.A," Hunter told the Los Angeles Times.
But having your own stadium is only part of the process. Chivas USA is going to have to cut at least part of the cord.
You want to make L.A. your home? Hope to launch a real bid for the hearts of the multitude of soccer supporters in SoCal? Then you're going to have to move out of Daddy's house. Stop dissing your fanbase.
The money comes from Chivas de Guadalajara, and the MLS franchise's history and identity are tied to the iconic Mexican club. Fine. Keep the red-and-white stripes (at least it's not boring MLS monochrome), and even the name 'Chivas' if you must.
But the rest is a civic disaster. Being a sports fan has an awful lot to do with local pride, about supporting your home town and living and dying (metaphorically) with the players who represent it on the field. That's the ideal, anyway. Most pro sports franchises make an effort to identify with their home base. Chivas USA, meanwhile, turns its back on the people of Los Angeles.
The solution is simple. Rename the club Chivas L.A. or Chivas California. Remove the Guadalajara coat of arms from the club crest. What sports team anywhere in the world flaunts the logo of another city as part of its brand (above)? Replace it with something that symbolizes your actual home.
Chivas USA showed on Tuesday that it's not in awe of the parent club. It said it's ready to move into its own place. Now it needs to forge an identity as an independent club by appealing to the pride of Southern Californians, regardless of heritage.