Luis Bueno
Friday March 26th, 2010

CARSON, Calif. -- Little-known fact: A lot of what passes as Mexican food in the United States is not really Mexican food. Go to Sahuayo, Michoacan, or Tepic, Nayarit, and try to order a Spicy Chicken Burrito or a Double Decker Taco.

Now, for most of its existence, Chivas USA has been Major League Soccer's version of Taco Bell, offering up a low-quality version of an authentic Mexican flavor.

That ends now.

With Martin Vasquez as head coach, Chivas enters the season with a large number of Hispanic players and will likely play a much different style than in recent seasons. Chivas USA begins the MLS season with 11 Hispanic players. Some are of Mexican descent, such as Mariano Trujillo (born in Mexico City), Jesus Padilla (San Jose, Calif.) and Jorge Flores (Anaheim, Calif.), while others were born elsewhere in Latin America, such as Osael Romero (El Salvador) and Maykel Galindo (Cuba).

There are plenty of non-Hispanic players on the squad -- Ante Jazic, Sacha Kljestan and Michael Lahoud are expected to play big roles -- but the flavor of this club is downright spicy.

Vasquez has gotten away from the the tried-and-true MLSers and relying on elbow grease for results. Gone are players such as Jesse Marsch and Carey Talley, who logged valuable minutes under former coach Preki.

Vasquez has, in essence, brought in some authentic Mexican ingredients with which to cook. Gone are the olive oil and basil of last season, and in are the manteca and cilantro. We'll pass on the crunchy tacos, but another plate of tacos de lengua and some carnitas estilo Michoacan, por favor. And Vasquez isn't afraid to throw in some pupusas and casados on the platter.

Suddenly, the club has some flavor. And that's the way it should be, Trujillo said.

"It's important because the name, Chivas, it says that there are Latinos in here," said Trujillo, a veteran of four Mexican league clubs. "The people want Latinos on the team, but not just Latino players; they want good players. I think it should be a mix of both, Latino players and players [from elsewhere] ... so we can play good and win so the people can come to the stadium, watch us win and, most important of all, get titles."

Though he's stockpiled the pantry with flavors he's used to, Vasquez said it wasn't intentional in every case.

"It just happened that way because of the positions we were looking for, especially with [defender Michael] Umana," Vasquez said. "It had nothing to do with him being Hispanic."

Vasquez said he jumped at the opportunity to bring in Umana, a regular on the Costa Rican national team and World Cup '06 veteran who played the past three seasons in his home country. Another offseason acquisition, Osael Romero, was targeted in part because he was Hispanic, but that was not the only factor.

"[We were] looking for somebody in the attacking third to come and help us," Vasquez said. "Maybe it was him being Hispanic -- El Salvadoran -- but it was also his qualities."

In other words, don't show up speaking Spanish and expect to sign a contract.

That's what happened in 2005, the wretched first season that produced four wins and an embarrassing number of moments. Sure, the team had plenty of Hispanic players, but bad soccer is bad soccer, wherever the players come from. And Chivas USA did not want bad soccer, so Bob Bradley came in for one season and then Preki followed for three, and between them they turned the club into a strong contender, highly successful in the regular season but one still in search of postseason success after four consecutive first-round exits.

But things are different now. The roster has a different look to it, but the attitude surrounding the club is also different. Is it better or worse? Players won't say, but it's just different.

"A lot of it comes from Martin," Kljestan said. "He came in from the beginning and said, 'This is how we're going to play. This is how it's going to go whether you are going to buy into it or not. Either you believe in the system or you don't. If you don't believe in it, then get out of here.' Everyone has bought into the system and everyone enjoys playing under him and he makes it real fun for everybody. He's passionate about his job. He's passionate about Chivas, especially when he speaks to the team and speaks about the team."

For Vasquez, whose team starts the season against Colorado on Sunday, the bottom line remains the same.

"Whether we have a lot of Hispanics or not, the objective is to continue to keep showing that consistency in our league," Vasquez said. "That's every coach's objective and that's mine as well."

Chivas USA's chief rival, the Los Angeles Galaxy, will open against New England on Saturday as Home Depot Center will once again play host to two MLS games in two days. Galaxy star David Beckham is injured (ruptured Achilles tendon) and will not play much, if at all, during the MLS season, but he could be at the stadium for this match. Beckham returned to the club on Wednesday and watched part of the training session from the sidelines.

Keep an eye out for Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio. The longtime Costa Rican international could be the Newcomer of the Year, and the first step toward that happens Saturday as Real Salt Lake visits San Jose. Saborio is still adjusting to life in the United States and still familiarizing himself with his RSL teammates, but he could turn out to be an upgrade over the departed Yura Movsisyan.

New York opened Red Bull Arena with a friendly match last Saturday against Santos of Brazil (a 3-1 win), but this time the game is for keeps. Red Bull Arena will once again captivate the imagination and attention of MLS fans, who, no matter what team they cheer for, will likely want to see the spectacle that is MLS' newest stadium. The Red Bulls and Fire could play a listless, nil-nil draw Saturday night and the match would still be memorable.

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