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Cover Story

Conquistador in Cleats

In what may be a stroke of sports marketing genius, businessman Jorge Vergara will bring professional Mexican futbol to Los Angeles on April 2 with the debut of Chivas USA. 'We're taking the U.S. back little by little,' he jokes. We think.

March 13, 2005|David Davis | David Davis last wrote for the magazine about track star Allyson Felix.

Competition, Vergara says, is exactly the point. What MLS desperately needs, he says, is rivalry. "When Chivas plays [rival] Club America--when the Yankees play the Red Sox--that's [sports] at its best. That brings out the passion."

And, he hopes, Chivas USA will bring out fans in other MLS cities, from Columbus to San Jose. The idea is, Vergara says, "it's the Latins versus the Gringos. And we're going to win."

One of the first public appearances of Chivas USA occurred in November, when the team held its expansion draft party at the ESPN Zone sports bar in Anaheim, next door to Disneyland. As club officials huddled in a glass-enclosed suite, scores of Chivas fans commandeered the area and shook to the cacophonous bray of plastic horns. The crowd roared its approval when Chivas USA general manager Whit Haskel made the team's first pick: Arturo Torres, a young Mexican American winger who attended high school in Wilmington and previously played with the Galaxy and at Loyola Marymount University. Four of the team's first five selections were either Mexican or Mexican American.

MLS rules make it difficult for Chivas USA to field an all-foreign team, but the players on its 18-member senior roster will be predominantly of Mexican heritage. The ploy skirts anti-discrimination laws--and probably won't attract the soccer mom crowd--but it's designed to appeal to the team's core audience in Los Angeles. "We don't follow the MLS," says Celeste Saucedo, a 24-year-old fan attending the draft. "Now we will."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Soccer crowd -- A photograph on the cover of today's Los Angeles Times Magazine was altered to dampen the images of soccer fans gathered around the central figure in the photo. Manipulating an image in this manner is not consistent with Times photo policy.

Chivas USA has rolled out several marketing schemes, including a campaign that neatly sums up its Spanish-language philosophy: "Adios Soccer, El Futbol Esta Aqui" (or, "Goodbye Soccer, Futbol Is Here"). The team also launched the ChivaSocio club, with plans to sign up 5,000 members by the end of its first year. For $30, members receive a ticket to one game, a T-shirt and other benefits.

According to owner-partner Antonio Cue, "Chivas USA is a start-up, but it's a start-up with a big difference. With a great brand and a great market, the only thing we have to do is execute."

Chivas USA has already found its answer to Laker super-fan Jack Nicholson: actor Edward James Olmos, a longtime soccer aficionado who says he has paid his deposit for season tickets. "With Chivas coming into league, what's going to happen will be monumental," he says. "This is going to be a very different league now that Chivas will be allowed to bring in their understanding of many years of playing the game."

As the team readies for its inaugural season, the world's soccer community is watching intently. Signs that the sport is, finally, becoming part of the American cultural landscape are increasingly apparent. Last fall, apparel company Adidas signed a reported 10-year, $150-million sponsorship deal with MLS. In February, cable network Fox Sports World morphed into the Fox Soccer Channel, a 24-hour soccer-only network. And, in the next-big-thing category, several Hollywood heavyweights, including Spike Lee and Lawrence Bender, have announced plans to produce soccer movies.

Interest in soccer here is expected to build during the U.S. national team's arduous qualifying rounds en route to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. There's considerable speculation that if Chivas USA succeeds, MLS will expand by two more clubs, including one in Houston with a team from Mexico City-based Club America. Other clubs--perhaps even offshoots of storied European squads that have devoted followers here--might follow suit.

To sports marketing expert Carter, this would radically alter the MLS profile. "If they are successful with Chivas, it will open up a tremendous avenue for sponsors trying to reach the Hispanic audience," he says. "If other international teams decide to join MLS, corporate sponsors will piggyback onto these franchises as a way to brand their products in the U.S."

Vergara believes that MLS will succeed because he believes Chivas USA will succeed. "It's going to take some time to get to the point that we want to take it," he says. "But when it starts, it's going to start big."

The deadpan returns. "As someone in the ministry in Mexico put it, 'We're taking the U.S. back, little by little.' "

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