Seedy Chivas and The Way Forward

It's highly unlikely that Don Garber and the MLS Owners Committee were drunk on their collective asses the day they decided to hand a team to CD Chivas USA, although in retrospect it's about as reasonable an explanation as any other. The fact is though that since league ownership at the time consisted of a grand total of three guys - people used to quip that they could hold their meetings in a closet but I liked picturing them in Don Garber's basement rec room - none of them noted for their lack of sobriety, we have to look elsewhere for explanations.

In fairness, there were some reasons that, to those of us who knew little and understood less about the Mexican league and its fans (pre-John Jagou) it made perfect sense.

First of all, MLS had spent eight years and a ton of time and money inviting, begging and pleading with the Mexican immigrant community to please come sample their wares, only to be greeted with a collective yawn. A team with a famous Liga MX moniker, surely that was the ticket.

Secondly, the league had some strategic aims: one was to show that MLS, which had last been seen shedding teams because they were losing truckloads of money had in fact turned the corner and was attracting new investors, a class of individuals who are normally reluctant to put millions of dollars into failing enterprises.

Another was that even at that early date they were dreaming, hoping and planning on putting a second (yes, or a first if you insist) team in the New York City market and they were happy to establish a "derby" in MLS to show everyone how wonderful it is, how much excitement it can generate and by the way, if LA has one shouldn't NYC have one too?

The fact that the whole thing has collapsed in a huge heap of retribution, recrimination and name calling (when people are openly calling your management philosophy "racist" you may have a PR problem; just saying) has been well documented and I'm not going to replow that particular field, particularly since Dan has done yeoman work in that regard (see: Chivas USA Has No Foundation, et. al.)

And no, the fact that that FC Dallas embarrassed hell out of themselves last weekend by finding a way to lose to them doesn't alter the case any more than the previous week's 3-0 bitch slap at the hands of a Crew side with a whole bunch of question marks changes anything either. Last Saturday's "crowd", officially reported as a whopping 6900 and likely less than half that in reality, seems more germane to the issue than whose central defender made a complete hash of a ball or two.

The soccersphere has been humming with outraged demands that the league take immediate and drastic steps against LA2: move it, buy it back from the operating investor and/or do various unspecified stuff which apparently falls under the heading "the league has to step in/take action/do something."

And since, as everybody knows - well, everybody except fans in that mysterious far-away soccer Valhalla called "Cascadia" which seems to have a league of their own or something, which is perfectly fine with me I just wish they'd go away and leave the rest of us the hell alone (I used to say that Toronto fans were the most obnoxious bunch of jerks in the world; lately I keep thinking I owe them an apology) - Major League Soccer L.L.C. owns 50.1 percent of each and every MLS team the Board of Governors technically has every legal right to do whatever they choose with Chivas USA: close it down, demand that the current owner move it someplace else or force a sale to someone with a stray $40 million or so and some kind of nominally realistic stadium plan.

And it says here that exactly none of those things is going to happen anytime soon.

Yes, as Dan points out (see link above) the team is in a negative loop where it is quite literally impossible for them to succeed and it appears that even the owners agree since, among other things, they've fired the entire game day staff, don't have a local TV deal and have invested next to nothing in marketing and advertising.

In other words, they're not really even trying. Even their coach says he won't be here very long, which is a shame because you just don't get quotes like: "In a barrel of feces, you're grinding and grinding, you finally poke your head up to get the fresh air" from Robert Warzycha.

Owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes (aside from being married, they claim to be equal business partners as well), who "bought out" their co-owners the Cue brothers last Fall (most observers suggest that the Cues were just glad to get out from under the thing, and in truth it's hard to see how or why much money would have changed hands) aren't really even pretending they have a blueprint for winning in LA. Indeed, everything they do suggests the opposite.

It's something almost unique in sports: a team that has zero interest in winning a damned thing. They seem to be saying that, like a Triple A baseball team, fans should come down to the park to see "the Big League Stars of the Future".

The problem is, of course, that their partners in MLS are trying to sell the fact that this IS "the big leagues". Having the Rochester Red Wings playing in the American League isn't in anyone's best interests.

As Vergara himself said after taking full control last fall: "This is the return of the prodigal son. From its inauguration, the plan was to make Chivas USA the son of Chivas de Guadalajara."

"MLS: We're your little boy" is not exactly the idea the folks at MLS' Palatial Headquarters are trying to get across to the world. Maybe Cohiba Don didn't mind that approach back in 2004 when he was desperately trying to resuscitate a moribund-looking league, but now that "we want to be one of the best leagues in the world by 2022" is the order of the day, Vergara's statement only serves to emphasize just how divergent the league's goals are from his.

(Another example might be the fact that, since Chivas GDL has some time off during the international dates next week they've scheduled a couple friendlies in Juarez to keep sharp. One will be against Mexico's U20's on March 23 and the other will have them facing Chivas USA on the 20th. The fact that Chivas USA is playing the Galaxy on the 17th and are away to Chicago on the 24th is apparently no problem.)

All of which raises an interesting question, namely whether this situation is being made possible only because of the league's single entity structure, which spreads the money around from TV and S.U.M. and the adidas deal and the corporate sponsors and all the rest.

In other words, has MLS spent so much time and effort building a business that protects the investors from the normally substantial risks of sports team ownership that, if they feel like it, owners can basically ignore creating a winning team or building fan support and still do OK financially?

It is worth noticing that the things Chivas has cut out - like local staff costs, marketing and promotions and DP salaries - are the very things that the teams have to pay out of their own pockets. Even a guy like Sporting President Dennis te Kloese holds the same title at Chivas de Guadalajara, meaning that his salary is either split or, more likely, entirely paid by the Parent Club.

Of course Chivas has another big expense that they'd love to get out from under, namely the million-dollar-plus yearly lease payment to AEG in return for he use of the soon-to-be-renamed HDC, and it's the one part of Vergara's program that he's willing to make crystal clear: he wants out, but not out-of-town.

Now a cynic might suggest that based on early attendance numbers (even the real ones, let alone the official fantasy ones) he could use a decent high school stadium or even his back yard, but MLS surely has the right to reject a venue. The last thing they want right now is a dateline that reads "East Pomona State Aromatherapy College Field, Home of Chivas USA" and hold post-game pressers in the Cafetorium.

Dragon Stadium was a nightmare they have no intention of repeating.

Basically it appears that if Vergara can cut out-of-pocket expenses to the bone - you don't need a bunch of staff if you don't have many customers, I guess - and get his player's salaries paid by the other owners, then he's got a reasonable vehicle to use for his own purposes, namely getting his hooks into Latino players living in Southern California (in the middle of an austerity movement Chivas nevertheless just announced the expansion of their Academy program to include U14's) and providing a sort of finishing school for not-ready-for primetime young professionals.

Best of all, the ownership share he probably only paid five million bucks for (assuming he paid roughly 50% of the original $10 million "franchise" fee and little or nothing for the other half when the Cue's decided to cut and run) is now probably worth $40 or $50 million - at least - on the open market, with ready buyers starting to line up.

Plus - and don't think for a minute that he or anyone has missed it - the expectation is that in the not-to-distant future someone is going to open up their checkbook and cut MLS a $100 million payday in return for the rights to the NY market.

Now only the simple minded think that the money will be divvied up into little $5 million gift baskets for the existing owners. That's NASL thinking and that's why the NASL no longer exists (Yes, I know and no, it really doesn't).

What it will mean is that the company that Vergara and Fuentes own a piece of just made a killing and in addition to being flush with cash now own and operate a gaudily spectacular $300 million sports and entertainment venue in beautiful New York, New York the town so nice they named it twice.

Toss in the fact that 2014 is a World Cup year wherein MLS/SUM figures to benefit mightily, and frankly, this is no time for getting out, and Vergara says he has no intentions of doing so.

So absent a new stadium deal in LA someplace East of the 405 (where the team, with a different name that doesn't alienate fans of the other 17 Liga MX clubs, would be much better positioned to play the "Working class hard working club vs. rich arrogant snobs club" dynamic with the cross-town rival Galaxy, the only alternative - assuming it's legal - would be for MLS to take over the team and engineer a sale to someone else against Vergara's wishes.

Which at this point would be a PR disaster of Biblical proportions.

MLS is always angling for attention from the mainstream sports media guys but a headline reading "Very White Anglo Rich Guys in Suits Seize League's Only Latino-owned, Latino-operated Team, Which is Full of Latino Players And Hand It Over To Someone Who Looks More Like Them" will see the only recorded instance of a sports commissioner's head exploding.

Having allowed - indeed encouraged - Chivas to position themselves as the token Mexican team in the league, it's just not going to look good when you kick in the door and throw everybody out.

It's hard to see the way out of Vergara and Fuentes running Chivas USA as their Triple A affiliate for as long as they feel like it with the rest of the teams contractually obligated to pay the lion's share of their bills.


Fortunately, while the whole "getting people of Mexican extraction to love us" effort founders on the rocks of reality, MLS may have accidentally stumbled into the solution.

I am indebted to that loveable curmudgeon of American soccer, Grandpa Paul Gardner of SoccerAmerica who, in one of his numbingly typical "Latin players rule, Anglo players drool" pieces - it's a drum he's been pounding for 25 years - posted the following figures for MLS Development Academy players, showing the percentage of each team (u16 and U18) which is "Latino":

Chicago 35% Chivas USA 75% Colorado 33% Columbus 4% Dallas 61% D.C. United 25% Houston 72% Kansas City 19% Los Angeles 62% New England 24% New York 29% Portland 37% Real Salt Lake 43% San Jose 48% Seattle 9%

3/4 of Dallas' academy teams, 2/3 of Dallas and the Gal's, half of San Jose's and roughly a third of several others are identified as "Latino" and it's a fair assumption that a majority of most of them represent players of Mexican extraction.

Whether this is, as it appears to be, an example of what was always possible with the elimination (or reduction) of the pay-to-play youth system in American soccer, or whether it's a natural evolution of another kind, one thing seems clear:

In the next decade, a lot of players who are identifiably of Mexican extraction are going to end up on MLS teams, and that's when we'll find out for sure whether MLS has any chance at all with the one group that has proven most resistant to MLS's appeals.

If they still won't come out and watch dozens of players with whom they share a background - as opposed to a bunch of guys named Biff who graduated from an ACC University - then we'll know that, aside from simply hosting Liga MX matches in US cities, there's just nothing MLS can do to get their interest.

Unlike importing Chivas Lite, it's a realistic chance to create fans.

MLS fans have long been identifiable by their feverish impatience with the pace of progress, and maybe that's the nature of the beast. Many of you will recall back in 1998, with the league losing $100 million a year, people were demanding that the owners nevertheless reach a lot deeper to fund a reserve league, European-style youth systems and the signing of expensive foreign players.

But in the fullness of time, those things have all come about. It took longer than we wanted but in retrospect it was only the blink of an eye for what is still a very very young league.

Likewise the desire to attract fans of various foreign leagues like the EPL and La Liga and, Serie A and, yes, Liga MX has yet to bear much fruit. When the owners green-lighted what can only be called - with apologies to Grant Wahl - "The Chivas Experiment" they were trying to speed up a process which, in hindsight, probably couldn't be hurried.

That experiment was a dismal failure: it solved nothing, gained nothing and profited no one, and has left them with a serious mess that's not going away easily or, absent a miracle, any time soon.

But it may just be that a solution is in sight. Maybe it's not as imminent as we'd like, but MLS is not the floundering entity it was in 2004 and can afford to wait.