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Chivas USA: a great idea on paper; another story on the field

SOCCER

Disappointing play and falling attendance have beset the Chivas USA MLS franchise. With a new owner at the helm, is it time to start over?

September 09, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

Sometimes even good ideas turn out bad — which might be the best way to explain what has happened to Chivas USA.

When the franchise joined Major League Soccer in 2005, it seemed like a can't-miss proposition. The team borrowed its name, uniform design and part of its deep-pocketed ownership group from its Mexican cousin, Chivas de Guadalajara, one of international sport's most popular and iconic franchises.

That gave the team clout and recognition before it had even played a game. And when it set up shop in a region that's home to more than 6 million people of Mexican heritage, there seemed to be no way it could lose.

The reality, however, has proved to be quite different. With Saturday's 2-1 loss in Seattle, the team continues a slide that has seen it go six weeks without a win. Chivas USA hasn't made the MLS playoffs since 2009, losing more games, 44, over that span than any team in the Western Conference while seeing its average home attendance plummet 16.5% to 13,127, the largest decline in the league.

In eight seasons, the franchise has yet to turn a profit, has waffled on its identity and has struggled to find stability — a search that isn't likely to be helped by last month's announcement that the mercurial and famously impatient Jorge Vergara has bought out his partners and, along with wife Angelica Fuentes, taken full control of the team.

All of which makes this the best time to declare the Chivas USA idea a failure and look for a way to start over.

Certainly Vergara has plans for the team or he wouldn't have bought it. But consider the timing: With MLS about to award another expansion franchise, its 20th, the league will soon reach its maximum size. That makes existing franchises such as Chivas USA attractive options for places like Orlando and San Antonio, which would like to join the league. And it gives MLS the option of moving a struggling franchise to a more supportive environment.

But the league, which has seen just one franchise relocated in its 17-year history, insists that option isn't being discussed.

"We are very focused on how to make Chivas better, more popular in the market, how could we help them achieve that goals that they set out when they came into the league," MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said.

There could be money to be made in a move, though, at least for Vergara, who also owns Chivas de Guadalajara. When MLS expanded to Montreal before this season, the expansion fee was $40 million — eight times what Vergara and his wife reportedly paid when Chivas USA was founded. Vergara would probably have to buy himself out of various commitments before the team could be sold or moved — his lease with AEG and the Home Depot Center has two years left — but given the demand for MLS franchises, he should still be able to turn a tidy profit.

There's even precedent for a sale. Last year, after insisting that a club he owned was not on the market, Vergara unloaded his first-division Costa Rican team, Deportivo Saprissa, which had won eight league titles and reached the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League during his eight years as owner.

Should Vergara decide to hang on to Chivas USA and keep it in Southern California, he faces a more complex set of challenges, the most vexing of which is how to escape the massive shadow cast by the Galaxy, its roommate at the Home Depot Center.

Southern California is the only MLS market with two teams, and the differences between the two couldn't be starker. Chivas has been the worst team in the conference the last three seasons, and the Galaxy has been the best team in the league, reaching two of the last three MLS Cup finals and winning the title last year.

The Galaxy has a well-paid roster that includes David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, who together will earn nearly $10 million this season — more than three times Chivas' entire payroll.

The Galaxy can afford that in part because it has a league-record $55-million TV contract with Time Warner Cable. Chivas gets no rights fees for its local English-language broadcasts — not surprising given that they've averaged just 5,500 homes a game over the last two seasons, a barely detectable 0.1 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

And if that wasn't enough, Chivas is reportedly paying its rival more than $1 million a year to share its stadium, making it one of just four MLS teams to pay rent, according to the league.

When that lease runs out, Chivas hopes to jump to a proposed soccer-specific stadium to be built in Exposition Park. But a new home alone won't address Chivas' larger problems of identity and stability.

Rather than trade on its Mexican heritage and history — the very thing that made the franchise so attractive in the first place — Chivas USA has tried to distance itself from its pedigree in recent years. And as for stability, the team has gone through seven head coaches in eight seasons.

Now comes more change. President Antonio Cue is already out, and other moves are imminent, with various media outlets, including The Times, reporting that the decision to let General Manager Jose Domene go has already been made. Domene denied that in a one-sentence tweet, but it's telling that no one else with the team has rallied to his side.

And Vergara has been silent since taking ownership 10 days ago, with his spokeswoman declining to answer questions about the team's future, instituting a media blackout instead.

That's left it to the league to defend both the team and its owners, with officials there insisting this isn't the time to cut and run.

"We still believe that brand can be very successful in the league," an MLS spokesman said of Chivas USA. "We have total faith in Jorge."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joe Flint contributed to this report.

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