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KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Can Chivas USA enjoy more than borderline success?

The MLS team has little in common with its far more successful sister club in Guadalajara, and seems determined to downplay its Mexican heritage. Change is needed.

January 07, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Fans of Chivas USA show their support during a game against the Colorado Rapids at Home Depot Center.
Fans of Chivas USA show their support during a game against the Colorado… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)

The name's the same, the game's the same — even the uniforms and part of the ownership group are the same.

Yet for all the similarities, Mexico's Chivas of Guadalajara and the Major League Soccer club that plays in Carson are not the same, insists Chivas USA General Manager Jose Domene.

"Guadalajara is our sister club," he says. "Chivas USA is a team with a rich heritage, history and tradition that is based in L.A. However, Chivas USA is not Chivas Guadalajara. They are two separate teams that work together."

Here's another way to tell the two apart: Chivas of Guadalajara posted the best record in Mexico's recently concluded Apertura, but Chivas USA has won just a quarter of its games over the last two seasons

Chivas Guadalajara also has a strong identity, something else its MLS sister team lacks. Guadalajara — one of the oldest and, with 11 First Division titles, the most successful soccer team in Mexico — remains the only team in its league to field only players of Mexican heritage.

That approach would never work on this side of the border and, in fact, just one of the players on the Carson team's roster is Mexican. But in a region that is home to more than 5 million Mexicans, Chivas USA would do well to play up its pedigree — to stamp itself as the most Mexican team in MLS even if that connection stops with the name and the jersey design.

Instead it seems to be running from that distinction.

"Historically there has been a misleading message of Chivas USA being a 'Mexican' team," Domene says. "For obvious reasons we cannot line up Mexican players only. We are an American team with Mexican heritage in our brand."

Further hurting Chivas' ability to carve its niche in Southern California's crowded sports market is that it shares the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy, whose star-studded lineup and recent success cast a large shadow.

Last season the Galaxy's average attendance was more than 23,000 a game at the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, more than 8,500 better than Chivas, which outdrew just five other MLS teams.

Turning that around may require forging a new team personality — but first Chivas USA's organization has to agree on what that should be. While the Mexico-born, U.S.-educated Domene favors a broader, more inclusive approach, marketing and sponsorship chief Rodrigo Morales, who spent five years running the organization in Guadalajara, is said by former team officials to prefer playing up the MLS team's Mexican roots.

A move might help too, with Domene confirming Chivas USA is in talks with "several cities" — including Pomona and Santa Ana — about a possible relocation.

Winning, of course, would also solve a lot of problems. And after remaking both the coaching staff and the front office following the 2010 season, the team appears committed to a lengthy rebuilding project — one that will rely partly on its youth academy, a strategy that has paid huge dividends in Guadalajara.

"It will take more than just a few months to develop talent, but it is our long-term strategy to have a sustainable team," says Domene, at 31 one of the youngest general managers in professional sports. "Successful MLS teams and coaches take two to four years of work. Right now this coaching staff is on its second year and we are making the necessary changes to have a better team for the 2012 season.

"That means that some players will leave and others will stay."

Second-year Coach Robin Fraser, far more experienced than Domene in soccer matters, has continued tinkering with the roster this off-season, parting ways with strikers Justin Braun and midfielder Paulo Nagamura while adding midfielders Ryan Smith and Oswaldo Minda.

Fraser is also optimistic the team will bring back Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel, one of only two players in MLS history to score as many as 10 goals in five consecutive seasons.

However, Fraser's moves have contributed to the lessening of the team's Mexican makeup since the coach waived Francisco Mendoza and Jesus Padilla and declined the option on Mariano Trujillo.

It remains to be seen whetherthat will help give Chivas the identity and success it enjoyed five seasons ago, when it won a conference title during a streak in which it reached the playoff quarterfinals four straight years.

But you can bet people from Guadalajara to Gotham will be watching.

"I think any sports league commissioner is going to be focused on how not just to make your good teams great but to make your teams that are struggling better," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "We are very focused on how to make Chivas better, more popular in the market.

"How [can] we help them achieve the goals they set out when they came into the league in 2005?"

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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