Robin Fraser is likely coaching his last game for Chivas on Sunday. (Darryl Dyck / Associated…)
After consecutive eight-win seasons, Chivas USA's management promised this would be the year the team turned the corner.
"I would not be happy if we were not way ahead of eight [wins]. The playoffs for sure," President Antonio Cue pledged in the spring.
Yet, instead of rounding that bend the team missed the turn completely and skidded into a brick wall. Eight months later, Cue is gone and the team goes into Sunday's finale still looking up at eight victories, assured of finishing last in Major League Soccer's Western Conference for the second time in three seasons.
This really hasn't been a season as much as it has been a train wreck and it's likely to take most of the off-season to clean up. Chivas' new ownership — Mexican magnate Jorge Vergara and his wife, Angelica Fuentes, bought out partners Antonio and Lorenzo Cue in August — got a start on that last week when they appointed Veracruz-born businessman Jose David team president and Jose Luis Real, a former Mexican league player and coach, to a newly created position as supervisor of soccer operations.
Those won't be the last of the moves. Robin Fraser is likely coaching his last game for Chivas on Sunday. Reports out of Mexico say Efrain Flores, who coached Vergara's Mexican league franchise Chivas de Guadalajara, will soon replace Fraser.
Vergara isn't saying what all this means — neither he nor his wife have said anything publicly about Chivas USA since taking over two months ago. But it's not hard to connect the dots and conclude that Chivas USA and its long-estranged Mexican cousin — who share the same name, same colors and now the same management — may soon share a lot more.
Chivas de Guadalajara is the last team in Mexico to exclusively field players of Mexican heritage and one high-ranking executive with another MLS team says Chivas USA may adopt a similar approach, hiring a Latin American staff, fielding a largely Hispanic roster and working primarily with Spanish-language sponsors.
The team's recent moves certainly seem to point in that direction.
Flores, 54, coached in Mexico with Atlas, Leon, Chivas and Pachuca, and served as interim coach of the national team after the 2010 World Cup.
Real, 60, another former Chivas coach, is a confidant of Vergara and has earned a sparkling reputation for identifying and grooming young talent, first at Atlas and currently with Chivas de Guadalajara, where he will remain the team's director of athletic development.
Among the players Real has developed are Mexican national team stars Carlos Salcido, Francisco Rodriguez, Rafa Marquez, Javier Hernandez and, more recently, Marco Fabian, who helped Mexico to its first Olympic soccer title in the summer. Real is hopeful he can do the same in Southern California, turning Chivas USA's youth academy into a farm program that could funnel players to both of Vergara's teams.
"There are players of Mexican descent with a lot of talent there," Real told a Mexican journalist this fall. "That makes me enthusiastic because we can intervene over there to capture the talent."
Vergara's passion clearly lies with his Mexican league club, so Real's real mission with Chivas USA could be to find and recruit talent for the struggling franchise in Guadalajara. Turning the U.S. team into a competitive MLS club with the parts left over would likely involve more time and patience, neither of which Vergara has much of.
Eight years after its founding, Chivas USA still has no identity and little history having experienced more front-office overhauls (two) than playoff games (none) in the last three years. But this season was particularly bad.
Chivas USA began August a game below .500 and six points out of a postseason spot only to go winless in a franchise-record 13 consecutive games. Over those 13 games, Chivas led for only 20 minutes, and it has not led at all since Sept. 8, scoring once in its last seven games.
Chivas has been shut out 16 times in 33 games, one shy of the MLS record, and with only 22 goals it needs two scores Sunday to avoid finishing with the poorest offense in league history.
Not surprisingly, Chivas' average home attendance of 13,056 is worst in the league and the lowest in team history. Its local TV ratings are virtually nonexistent, averaging 5,500 homes per game over the last two seasons.
That doesn't give Vergara and his lieutenants much of a starting point, but MLS insiders say they have no plans to either sell the team or move it any further than Exposition Park, where a soccer-specific stadium could soon be built.
As for the players, all-star goalkeeper Dan Kennedy insists the core of the roster is much better than it showed this season. Pointing to the recent resurgences in Kansas City and San Jose, Kennedy says building around that core could yield similar results here.
"To say that everyone needs to be scratched and we need to start anew, I think it's unfair and it's unrealistic," he said. "There's always something to build off of. And we have young players that are talented. We have older veterans that are experienced and talented.
"It's really going to be about finding a few pieces that can pull this whole thing together."