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The Designated Player: On the Death of a Goat

Results on the field have been poor and marketing outreach off the field abject, but the fact is, as problematic as each of these symptoms have been, they’re just that: symptoms. The root problem — and here’s where New York City need to watch carefully — has been the very project itself.

“In a barrel of feces, you’re grinding and grinding.”

When Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, a.k.a. Chelis, one of the last (it’s hard to keep track) head coaches of Chivas USA said those words, he was referring more to the in-game fortunes of his team than the existential crisis that had gripped his organization since its birth, but when you’re right, you’re right.

Anyway, I’d written a story about Chivas USA that was due to go up on Grantland yesterday. It was brilliant. It had structure, pertinence, and investigative whatnot. There were quotes from real people and everything, and a balanced perspective tinged with touches of poetry.

I can say this because you’ll never see it.

Because on Thursday afternoon, Jorge Vergara sold the club back to MLS and the story was instantly obsolete.

For in a barrel of feces I am grinding and grinding.

It may have been worth it, though. For a second, when the news broke, I think I got some intimation of what it must be like to be a Chivas fan — the inescapable sense, as miscue follows miscue, that somehow they’re doing this to me, in particular. How can I not take it personally?

In case you haven’t been following (and judging by the fact that Chivas was trending on Twitter yesterday, when it’s been years since it trended in its own stadium — you have been following), on Monday, Alicia Ratterree of Chivas blog the Goat Parade revealed that, in January, two trademark applications were filed by a company in Carson, California, called Chivas Guadalajara Enterprises. The applications were for the names and logos for Los Angeles SC and Los Angeles FC.

This sparked much speculation for the remainder of the day that Jorge Vergara, the bullish owner of Chivas USA, may have been about to ignore a single-digit approval rating in Southern California, and gamble on one last tack for the team: a rebrand to distance it from the long-problematic CD Guadalajara (the original, and to many fans, the only, Chivas) association, and belated attempt to establish a viable identity as the second Los Angeles team. It says much that this would have been an extreme rarity in world soccer — a rebrand that would have been greeted not just with relief, but almost as a gesture of healing for many of the team’s fans, long tired of bearing the brunt of others’ jokes. As Ratterree once put it to me for a 2012 story on the team:

“What is it like to be a Chivas fan? To me, Chivas USA don’t like jumping on the bandwagon. They like an underdog, and have a bit of a contrarian streak. They have to put up with a lot of abuse from opposing fans, so they are tough. How many fans in MLS are told their team is a “failure” and that the club needs to fold? Only Chivas.”

And now Chivas’s days are numbered. After confirming on Tuesday, with bracing candor, that “We are carrying out studies because four years of failures has degraded the name of Chivas in Los Angeles a lot,” by Thursday, rather than rebranding, Vergara had sold his stake in Chivas back to the league. He’ll retain the copyright to the Chivas USA name (possibly worth slightly less than Pepe Pinton holding on to the New York Cosmos name for all those years) and the club will operate under league control for this year, while MLS leads the search for both a new ownership group to relaunch a team within the L.A. market and a stadium site to locate them. When New York City FC, a.k.a. NY2 kick off in the 2015 season, they may be competing alongside a new LA2 side finally worthy of a local rivalry.

Results on the field have been poor and marketing outreach off the field abject, but the fact is, as problematic as each of these symptoms have been, they’re just that: symptoms. The root problem — and here’s where New York City need to watch carefully — has been the very project itself. Simply put, the team has never found a way to turn its association with Guadalajara into more of a help than a hindrance.

Chivas USA arrived in the league nine years ago, introduced alongside Real Salt Lake as the first new teams since the league’s contraction from Florida in 2002. RSL went on to become one of the small-market success stories of the league — winning an MLS Cup and consistently posting 50-point seasons — while Chivas, introduced bullishly as a club that would expand the CD Guadalajara brand around a base of Mexican talent, lost their way.

There is neither the time nor the space to enumerate all the missteps, though looking at the last year alone — the short-lived reign of Chelis (whose quotable genius is perhaps best captured in the opening fragment of this piece), an aggressive recruitment policy change that saw the team end up in an embarrassing HBO Real Sports segment about possible racial discrimination, a revolving door of personnel, and the general ongoing embarrassment of terrible attendances — all provide some idea of the ongoing malaise.

The fans were understandably fed up to the point of indifference. Another Chivas writer, Matthew Hoffman of Soccerly, on Wednesday inadvertently offered what might have been a prophetic take on the next day’s events:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. Chivas’s 2013 attendance was 36 percent lower than in 2012, both lowest in the league … For context, the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny averaged 11,177 and 10,479 respectively in 2001, their final season in MLS. If a Chivas USA rebrand is not in the works (i.e. if Vergara purchased it either to protect his brand from Stan Kroenke’s proposed ‘LA Gunners’ or to help him sell his twin Chivas products) people aren’t going to be outraged because they’re just past that point.”

Let’s quickly deal with that “L.A. Gunners” snippet, as it is an intriguing omen of the many rumors that will now emerge until the new LA2 is resolved. Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder at Arsenal, and owner of Colorado Rapids, was the subject of reports in England recently about plans for an Arsenal-affiliated team called L.A. Gunners. It’s a project that might seem a lot more attractive to the league with a ready-made vacancy in L.A. To thicken the plot, Kroenke recently bought 60 acres of land, previously owned by Walmart, in Inglewood. The local gossip was that this was either a power play to give him leverage in St. Louis in ongoing stadium negotiations with the NFL over a home for the Rams, or that he was really serious about moving that franchise to L.A. The L.A. Gunners angle would add another dimension to his potential ambitions. But speaking on a conference call after the Chivas announcement, Don Garber suggested Kroenke wouldn’t be buying the franchise, as the league were trying to move away from owners having more than one team. So there’s that.

One might think, in this age of soccer-dedicated stadia, a stadium led by an NFL franchise might be a nonstarter. But MLS executives have repeatedly mentioned Atlanta as a credible expansion contender — a deal that in its current form depends largely on Arthur Blank’s new stadium for the Falcons. During Garber’s most recent state of the league address, he suggested the stadium issues for a potential bid there had been resolved, and said, “We’ve been working on a downsizing technology we think will be unique and will be the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.”

The suggestion is that if an NFL stadium can be truly adjusted to create an appropriately scaled environment — as opposed to, say, the New England Revolution fans rattling around Gillette Stadium — MLS is not opposed.

Whatever ownership group gets the go-ahead, though, that issue of the damage done by Chivas’s slumping attendances — a “downsizing technology” hardly likely to advance in the forthcoming “lame goat” season — is a real challenge for any would-be LA2 team.

Chivas struggled for fans, for reasons that, from the start of the project, were not hard to fathom. Last year, in particular, the team tried to double down on an identity that seemed flawed from the start. In fairness, despite criticism from outside, there were long-standing fans who did embrace the link to CD Guadalajara, such as the Union Ultras supporters group, whose attitude tended to be typified by one of their leaders, “Chivas Mayor” Julio Ramos.

Ramos was a boyhood Guadalajara fan whose father worked for the team, and he once described the arrival of Chivas USA as “a perfect experience to bring my kids and show them my culture”. The Ultras, in general, tend to be traditionalists, more comfortable with the Guadalajara association. Younger fans, who make up the Black Army 1850 supporters group, for example, always had a much more indifferent relationship to the brand, if not their beloved L.A. (the date in their name is taken from the founding of the city), that hardened into strong anti-Vergara sentiment.

One of the Black Army’s founding members, Angel Mendoza, spoke to me for that same 2012 story I spoke to Ratterree about. He recounted his own experiences, having moved to L.A. from Mexico at the age of 6. At the time of the interview, he was ambivalent, at best, about the team’s self-limiting marketing strategy, and what it missed about the rich locale it should have been targeting:

“We love our heritage — I’m Mexican-American myself … but we want the team to grow here in L.A., to be a staple of the game in the United States. When you’re hitting that market (Guadalajara fans) — you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot. You have the Guadalajara fans, who look at us like the copycats who really don’t matter; you have the Mexican-American fans who already have deep roots in Pachuca, Pumas, whatever, and they have a hatred towards the colors; so you’re already eliminating half your market. You know, what’s left? And that’s where we come in … It’s the 21st century — we’re proud of being here in the U.S. I have two little girls and if they play soccer when they get older, they’re going to play for the U.S. Women’s National Team. I have to help the sport grow here.”

And that’s one of the hopes for LA2. That there is a sufficient desire and potential, not yet being addressed by the Galaxy, for a more uniquely Angeleno vision of an MLS team, rather than a plastic export of a Mexican team. What such an L.A. ideal might be is its own hot-button topic for another day, but if any prospective suitors want to do some market research, there is a set of fans with nine years of bitter experience to help inform them what it is not. For today at least though, those fans may be thinking of the rest of that Chelis quote, about the result of all that grinding in feces: “You finally poke your head up to get the fresh air …”