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L.A. Fans Eager to Cheer Chivas

Major League Soccer expansion could benefit from parent team's tradition.

August 02, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

When Jorge Vergara officially makes the long-awaited announcement today that his Major League Soccer expansion team, Chivas USA, will share the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy, one nagging thought might linger.

Will Los Angeles fans respond as well to Chivas USA as they do to its parent team, Chivas Rayadas de Guadalajara?

The original Chivas has been around for 98 years, winning 10 Mexican league championships. Chivas USA is a goat of another stripe. It is a gamble that Vergara is taking, but a calculated one.

Having made his fortune in the health supplements field, Vergara has branched out into sports, entertainment and films, buying, among other things, two soccer teams: Chivas of Mexico and Saprissa of Costa Rica.

Now, with his third club, he believes he can show MLS a better way of doing business, or at least a different way.

The risk appears slight and the potential immense.

Judging by an informal survey of fans conducted at the Coliseum recently when 21,000 turned out to see Chivas play Boca Juniors of Argentina, Vergara has no need for concern. Chances are, Chivas USA will thrive.

Victor Gonzalez, a 26-year-old from Victorville whose job involves locating underground utility lines, showed up at the Coliseum wearing a hat with goat horns and waving a Chivas flag.

"I support the Galaxy," he said, "but knowing that Chivas is coming, I'm going to go for them. I'm very happy. I'll probably come out to more games than I did with the Galaxy."

Part of Chivas' appeal is that, unique among Mexican teams, it fields only native-born players.

"It's so popular because 100% of its players are Mexican," said Antonio Silva, a 50-year-old plastics worker from San Fernando, bedecked in the red and white vertical-striped shirt of Chivas.

Silva said he does not believe Chivas USA will necessarily have to follow that pattern but could include Latino players from other countries, thereby reflecting the city's ethnically diverse population.

So far, Chivas USA has signed two players, Ramon Ramirez and Francisco Palencia, both from Chivas.

"That's great," Gonzalez said. "That way people here who support Chivas in Mexico can have players that they recognize."

Gonzalez was not certain whether the new team would be predominantly Mexican, Mexican-American or otherwise.

"I don't know," he said. "You can see it both ways. People who were born here, like myself, you want to see players from here, give them a chance because it's Chivas USA. But you know the tradition. So it can go either way."

The cross-border appeal of Chivas would have been apparent to anyone at the Coliseum. Certainly it was to vendors hawking everything from $2 Chivas headbands to $70 Chivas shirts.

"Sales-wise, they're one of the strongest teams everywhere we go," said Ed Levassey, 45, a souvenir vendor from Los Angeles. "We do games up in San Jose, down in San Diego. Whenever they're involved, we always do very good with merchandise.

"[Chivas USA] will be popular. I don't follow the league all that closely, but I do know a good thing when I see it. You can see their colors everywhere."

Fellow vendor Daniel Gonzalez, also from Los Angeles, said Chivas is probably third in sales, behind Mexico's national team and Club America.

Will Chivas USA merchandise do as well?

"Oh, it definitely will sell," he said.

Chivas has massive support for varied reasons.

"Because of the way they play," said 12-year-old Adolfo Madrigal of South Gate, at the Coliseum despite being on crutches because of a broken right leg.

"I don't know why, I just like Chivas," said Margarita Ramirez, 19, of La Puente, clutching a goat mascot. She was born in Guadalajara, where her father encouraged her to support Chivas.

"Ever since I've been playing soccer, Chivas has been my team," said Larry Garcia, 36, also of La Puente.

"It's in the blood."

Originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Garcia manages a distribution center and also coaches soccer. He brought half a dozen players, family and friends with him, all wearing Chivas shirts.

"We support the Galaxy," he said, "but having Chivas USA here, I think it's going to be a lot better for everyone. I'm going to be supporting both teams."

Laura Helm, who plays soccer on a predominantly Latina women's team in the San Fernando Valley, said she would support Chivas USA.

"Way, way more than the Galaxy," she said. "Mexican soccer is much more passionate, to me. The Galaxy is just kind of too structured, not as much excitement, not as much passion."

Los Angeles construction worker Braulio Rincon, 28, also will support Chivas USA.

"I think it's a good idea for the league," he said. "Yes, it might be bad for the Galaxy, but it will make them better."

Monica Ramirez, from Bell Gardens, said she would support both teams.

"It will be very, very popular," said her friend, Alexandra Arroyo, from Los Angeles. "I will be there."

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