What Could Have Been: The Disaster of Chivas USA
Chivas USA is set to fold as a franchise after the 2014 Major League Soccer campaign. But where did it all go wrong for the Los Angeles club?
2005 was a big year in the history of Major League Soccer.
Two years earlier, the league was forced to close the two Florida franchises because of mounting debt and continually poor attendance records. Simply put, they were losing money and had no hope to turn things around. The prognosis looked bleak for the success of a first division American professional soccer league. However, commissioner Don Garber was determined to implement a long term growth strategy that would ensure the health of the MLS for generations to come. Rebounding from the loss of two franchises is not easy to pull off. Neither was trying to establish soccer in the American sports landscape dominated by Football, Baseball, Basketball and, at the time, hockey. As the MLS neared its tenth birthday, it was necessary for the league to start turning a page and finding success-- and to start paying the $350 million debt accrued in the league's early existence.
And in 2005, the tide began to turn.
MLS had already enjoyed improved media coverage because of a 14 year old. Freddy Adu became the youngest professional athlete in American sports history when he joined DC United in 2004. But what the MLS needed more than a media darling was larger market penetration. And so after withdrawing from Florida 3 years earlier, the league expanded to 12 teams by adding two franchises: Real Salt Lake and Club Deportivo Chivas USA, the league's third California franchise. The stories of these two MLS franchises could not have gone in more polar directions.
Real Salt Lake
Since joining the league in 2005, Real Salt Lake has developed into a premier franchise in Major League Soccer. RSL has reached the playoffs in 6 consecutive seasons, won the MLS Cup in 2009, finished runner up in 2013 and became the only franchise in MLS history to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final. They play in Rio Tinto Stadium, one of the best soccer specific venues in the country. They've also done really well in attendance, averaging over 16,000 per game every season. If you had to select the top 5 MLS franchises, it would certainly include RSL.They sport World Cup roster members Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman as well as budding young prospects like Luis Gil and Chris Schuler on their squad and look poised to challenge for the MLS Cup throughout the foreseeable future.
Their future looks bright.
If Real Salt Lake is trending upwards, Chivas USA is trending in the opposite direction.
Over the last four years, Chivas USA has been competing with Toronto FC for the worst franchise in the league. With Toronto's off season spending spree, Chivas USA has solidified their position at the bottom of the barrel in MLS. They've finished in the bottom two of the western conference in each of the last four seasons and have a steadily declining attendance, dropping below 10,000 per game in 2013. They don't have their own facilities, splitting a stadium with cross town rivals, LA Galaxy. Tack on a couple discrimination lawsuits and you can see why Chivas has failed recently. They look remarkable similar to the Florida franchises that folded in 2002. And earlier this month, MLS announced that Chivas USA would join their ranks, with the franchise due to fold after the current season.
But where did it all go wrong?
Because of their recent history, many forget that Chivas USA was a vibrant club once upon a time. A year after expansion, Chivas made the playoffs for four straight years, including a first place Western Conference finish as recently as 2007. They developed United States national team players Sacha Klejstan, Jimmy Conrad, Jonathan Bornstein and Brad Guzan and looked poised to contend for the MLS Cup under the direction and leadership of legendary player and coach, Predrag "Preki" Radosavljevic. If you read an article 7 years ago, you may read about how Chivas is the future of the MLS and the key to the Mexican-American market.
And it could have been.
However, the club's direction changed at the end of 2009 with the dismissal of Preki and the appointment of Martin Vasquez. Following Preki's departure, Sacha Klejstan followed Brad Guzan's example and bolted to Europe. Vasquez failed to impress ownership and was dismissed less than a year after taking the reigns. A few days following Vasquez's departure, CEO and President Shawn Hunter as well as vice president of soccer operations Stephen Hamilton both resigned leaving the club with no leadership or vision moving forward.
The club wilted over the next 3 seasons.
In 2012, Jorge Vergara took sole possession of the franchise and did all he could to further drive the club into the ground. Since he took ownership, there has been a revolving door of managers and players. They've lacked cohesion and consistency in the clubhouse which has been blatantly obvious on the pitch. The club also battled a discrimination lawsuit following the dismissal of two youth coaches who claim they were released because they weren't Latino. With few impact players on their squad and a shrinking fan base, things needed to change.
And in 2014, they did.
Early in 2014, Major League Soccer purchased Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara for $70 mil in an attempt to keep the franchise solvent. They implemented a plan to sell the club by the end of the year with the condition that the team be re-branded and stay in Los Angeles. Rumors have been swirling that they have a buyer lined up headlined by Los Angeles Dodgers investor Peter Guber and polarizing Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan. A deal could be finalized by the end of the year with the sell price estimated to be north of $100 mil. That price would surpass the sum paid for NYC FC during last year's expansion. Though MLS would do well to turn a $30 mil profit on a struggling franchise that averages 8,000 less supporters per game than any other MLS team, one has to wonder if a buying group headlined by Vincent Tan is the solution.
After all, ownership was a huge reason that Chivas USA crumbled.
Vincent Tan does have a taste for re-branding, though. In 2012 the Malaysian owner wildly offended his own supporters by changing the 115 year old club's colors from blue to red and redesigned the club crest to feature a dragon despite their "bluebirds" nickname.
Although Chivas USA's final years were nothing short of disastrous, MLS is committed to having two franchises in Los Angeles. With a re-branded franchise set to rejoin MLS by 2017, Chivas supporters have much to be optimistic about. Maybe the new franchise will get a new stadium. A new mascot should make the team more marketable (How do you push support for the goats?). Their colors are likely to stay red if Vincent Tan is the majority owner, meaning they'll have some sweet throw back kits. They'll also have the opportunity to form a relationship with a much better, sturdier parent club.
The folding of a franchise is never a good thing for a league. But ten years from now, because of the club folding, the new franchise is poised to be closer to Real Salt Lake than the bottom of the barrel.