Chivas USA's strong academy plays on, but players have murky future
BELL GARDENS, Calif. — A ball pings around four eight-by-eight-yard squares of 13- and 14-year-old soccer players, each one rarely taking more than a single touch. Then, the whistle, followed by Brian Kleiban’s voice.
“Rotate,” he says, and a new defender enters the square. “¡Dale!”
On the week of the MLS Cup final in Los Angeles, the Chivas USA academy continues training despite its parent franchise abdicating at the end of the regular season. Its players continue their rondo exercises twice a week on the turf field at John Anson Ford Park.
Sharp focus, clean touches, constant communication and quick movement are non-negotiable for survival in this atmosphere. Rest periods are short, the ball played back into the grid immediately when it goes out of bounds. The only down time comes when changing exercises.
Rather than hanging their heads at the coach’s often loud criticism, they sprint to the next ball.
“You take more than two touches, you’re dead!”
Defenders eat up poorly controlled passes, and the ball never stops moving. Tackles fly without a flinch, at times leaving teammates on the floor. Most of these kids are physically unremarkable, but they seem to be everywhere at the same time because of their anticipation and movement off the ball.
Many of the players on Kleiban’s under-14 team have played together since age 9, allowing him to cultivate perhaps the best environment for youth development in the country.
But in six months, he could be out of a job, the players left to find new teams.
“It’s obviously not the ideal situation. The group, we’ve put in a lot of work, especially with the 14s,” Kleiban tells SI.com. “It would be a waste for it to go disperse all over the market … because that world-class potential that we talk about, it will fizzle out.”
The academy’s uncertain future came as part of MLS buying the Chivas USA franchise and contracting it, to be replaced by LAFC in 2017. Those involved would like to keep the U-14 team intact, in particular because of the sense that something special could come of the group.
The last United States U-14 national team camp included three Chivas USA players: César Rivera, Efraín Álvarez and Ulysses Llanez.
Former Goat John “Xuxuh” Hilton was also there, but he’s pursuing other high-level opportunities. Weston (Florida) FC and the New York Red Bulls were the only other teams with three participants in the camp.
“It would be a shame, a damn shame, for the guys to be homeless in six months,” Kleiban says, “but it’s beyond our control.”
The Chivas USA academy should be a major positive for MLS, especially after finally settling the discrimination lawsuit brought by former coach Dan Calichman and technical director Ted Chronopoulos in May 2013. With the case resolved, the academy has been Chivas’ most successful aspect, growing as the rest of the franchise stagnated.
Instead, it has turned into a downer for the older players in particular. The only certainty is that the players won’t have the Chivas badge on their chest beyond the next six months.
“The 16s and 18s, they want to know what their next step is — USL, MLS — and now, they see there is no next step, so it’s hard to get those guys motivated and understanding why they’re there, why they’re training, why they’re working — towards what goal?” Kleiban says. “We have no clarity to this day. Right now, we’re in the dark. Supposedly, in the next coming weeks, we’ll have answers. From what I’ve been told directly, MLS is pushing hard for it to continue. I don’t know exactly what that means, but they’re pushing on their end. U.S. Soccer has told me the same thing.”
As for the lawsuit, Kleiban points out it happened before his time and rebuffs its accusations as it relates to the academy now. Calichman and Chronopoulos alleged that coaches were required to speak Spanish and players mandated to register which nations they could represent internationally as Chivas extended its Mexican-only policy from the Guadalajara parent club to Southern California.
“There’s nothing of that sense or no requirement of that type,” Kleiban says. “Where you’re from, you’re from. If you fit the criteria in terms of technique and tactical awareness and, obviously, having a good work rate, being a good kid, having good personality, it doesn’t matter what ethnic background you’re from.”
Kleiban and his players started at Total Fútbol Academy Barcelona, where they earned some internet fame early in their careers, as a video of them in the SoCal U-11 State Cup gained 1.1 million views.
When Chivas USA hired Kleiban at the inception of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-14 age group in 2013-14, a core group of players followed.
Rivera, Álvarez, Llanez, Hilton, Carlos Anguiano, Misael Becerra, Owen Zaldívar, Miguel Ibarra (not to be confused with the current U.S. men's national team call-up) and Alex Méndez moved to Chivas USA, and a small number of them traveled to Florida in December 2014 with the Chivas USA U-16 team for an academy showcase, playing up two or three years. Álvarez, one of the youngest players in both the Chivas program and the U.S. U-14 pool at 12 years old, played up four years.
“Most of those guys have no ceiling,” Kleiban says. “When you have the intelligence, and the speed of thought is faster than the physical speed around you, you can adapt, and you can play at any level. … I’m really pleased that the youth national team coaches are tending to appreciate these same qualities, and they’re noticing the little details.”
The philosophy sounds simple, belying the depth of those details.
“We want to develop the first true world-class player here in the U.S.,” he says. “Possession, obviously, when we have the ball — a lot of people talk about it, but there are a lot of details that go into it. When we lose it, how do we recover the ball as high up the field as possible immediately? … These are things that a lot of people have talked about, but then you see the product on the field with this young group we’ve had for five years. You can see it every single day, in every single session. It comes out of their pores.”
As U.S. under-15 coach John Hackworth says, “They play at a really high level: their style of play, the way they execute, their teamwork, their understanding.”
The federation hired Hackworth, the former Philadelphia Union manager, in November 2014 as part of technical director and senior men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s renewed emphasis on youth development.
“Brian has done a really good job of creating a culture … along the lines of what Jurgen is out there speaking about,” Hackworth says. “Brian has set that culture and that standard very high, and I think you have a group of talented players who truly believe that and work very hard at making sure that is executed from trainings to games.”
Possibilities for Chivas USA in the near future include playing under the league or federation banner, as the U-17 Residency program does in Florida. Hackworth says U.S. head of scouting Tony Lepore has spoken to the league about trying to keep the program intact, and specifically about the stunning depth of quality in the U-14 team.
“I agree it would be a shame if they don’t continue. I think without giving specifics, and honestly not being a part of some of those discussions, I think there’s an effort being made to try to see if we can keep that group together,” Hackworth says. “I’m going to certainly do everything I can to help them achieve their goals, and that makes sense because we have so many kids who are in the national team program from that team alone.”
Logically, LAFC could pick up the slack, but the new franchise is more concerned with the immediate need to find a stadium site ahead of its 2017 launch. When they do finally launch an academy, they will likely want something they can call their own rather than anything associated with the tainted Chivas USA brand.
“It’s difficult for me to speak to the specific plans with the Chivas academy that’s being operated by MLS, because we did not acquire that franchise. The league terminated that parent franchise; they’re operating the academy,” team president and part-owner Tom Penn tells SI.com. “What I can tell you is that our commitment to a robust academy worthy of this marketplace — in the right place, at the right time, with the right resources — is integral to our plan.”
Penn says meetings with those across the youth landscape in the Los Angeles area leave him with the impression that LAFC will have no trouble attracting top young players.
“In this market, there’s just so much opportunity and so much talent,” he says.
Kleiban, 35, and older brother Gary, 38, have been molding that talent for a decade as coaches. They were born in Southern California to Argentinean parents hailing from Rosario and supporting Newell’s Old Boys, Lionel Messi’s childhood club. Their soccer perspective stems from the passion of the barras bravas lining stadium terraces in South America.
They speak sharply, with a brusque accent that is difficult to peg but sounds vaguely Hispanic. They’re tall, with matching shaved heads, which Brian covers with a baseball cap or a beanie in the cold.
Together, they started a brand called 3four3 to spread their training methodology and philosophy.
The company’s multiple fronts include a clothing line (maintained by former Creighton midfielder José Gómez until he signed with Atlante in Liga Ascenso MX this month) and an online coaching school with over 300 members that span the English-speaking world.
The Kleibans worked together closely on the field at TFA Barcelona, before Brian moved to Chivas USA. Now, Gary maintains the company’s website and manages the coaching course alongside his day job as a physics professor at California State University, Fullerton. Compared to his more outspoken brother, Brian's relative silence only adds to the intrigue surrounding his success on the field, which gives him a large following among American youth coaches.
“It’s not something that I invented,” he says of the methodology developed from multiple trips to study FC Barcelona, the namesake of his old club. “We’re not going crazy and inventing our own methodology. We’re copying a successful program, trying to implement it here in this market.”
The time and resources needed to develop players is a luxury Kleiban has had with his group of U-14s, and it shows in the training environment. They traveled to the Mediterranean International Cup as TFA Barcelona in 2013, drawing Barcelona in the group stage and defeating Ajax in the quarterfinals before losing to Barça in the semifinal. The group will play as Chivas USA in the 2015 MIC in early April in northeast Spain.
“We’ve gone to Europe five times in five years with the core of this group. They’ve seen it first-hand. They’ve seen what it takes, they’ve seen where they want to go, and they’ve seen their peers at that age, how they carry themselves on and off the field,” Kleiban says. “It’s not me versing it to them — ‘this is how so-and-so behaves’ — they carry themselves on and off the field like pros, and they demand the absolute best from one another. If somebody’s not up to par on a certain day, I don’t even have to do it — they get after them. They feed off that intensity.”
Kleiban also helped American midfielder Ben Lederman get into La Masia, Barcelona’s academy. He’s the same age as the Chivas players and plays with them in national team camps, although he didn’t play for Kleiban’s TFA.
Kleiban traveled to Spain with the Ledermans to facilitate the trial for Ben, now in his fourth season at Barça.
“It’s difficult to go to a whole new culture — you don’t understand anything the coach is telling you, you can’t understand your teammates — to step into that environment and produce that one week and change your life possibly,” Kleiban says. “He did really, really well for himself.”
Back in the U.S., the Chivas U-14s kicked off the 2014-15 academy season with a 5-1 win over storied SoCal club Arsenal. They drew 5-5 with the LA Galaxy in October and won 3-0 against another big area club, San Diego Surf, in December.
However, the U-16s and U-18s have struggled, with neither able to defeat an MLS academy team this season. Kleiban assists long-time colleague Andrew May in coaching the U-16s, and he has coached the U-18s since shortly after joining Chivas.
Those older players are less familiar with Kleiban’s methodology, leaving them a step behind the U-14s in implementing the same flowing, possession-based style.
“From a results standpoint, they do suffer a bit, but in all the games that we’ve played this season — maybe the exception being the Real Salt Lake U-18 game [a 4-3 loss] — I think we’ve controlled the games,” Kleiban says. “It’s difficult because the process is short and, obviously, the circumstances.”
In many ways, the Chivas USA U-14s are everything the franchise was supposed to be in MLS: a group with strong Hispanic roots that plays with a Latin flair and an identity the greater Spanish-speaking community can relate to. It didn’t work at the first-team level, but it certainly has with the U-14s.
“It all comes down from forging our identity. These kids feel like they belong to something,” Kleiban says. “They know what the reward is: if you can make it on this team and you can make it in this academy, there’s a bright future ahead for you. … I’d like to say that given the opportunity, I think I could duplicate this product at the highest levels.”
In possession, Chivas circulates the ball from the back and through midfield to effect quick combination play in the final third. That’s where the tricks and flicks come out, but the flair game is built on disciplined, smart play in the back and middle thirds.
With the team’s future in doubt, many players have drawn interest from other academies, including some in Mexico because of their dual citizenship. The Mexican federation regularly sends scouts to training and matches, as do clubs south of the border.
However, Kleiban says most of the parents refer suitors to him, claiming they will follow him wherever he ends up, just as they did in joining Chivas.
“That’s really good, to feel that support, but the parents and the players, they know it’s not fake,” he says. “They know that there’s a genuine connection and love, and they feel that there’s been big-time progress for the players.”
For now, the Chivas USA youth players and coach remain suspended in bureaucratic limbo. Nobody seems to have the answers they crave (MLS officials did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story).
“We’ve had a lot of people contacting us, and when there’s a serious project involved, we always listen. Obviously, I’m committed to the situation with Chivas and the MLS through June, and we haven’t heard anything beyond June, so we’re seeing what the next step is going to be,” Kleiban says. “Hopefully, it’s going to be a nice home that can continue with the progression with regard to the players and obviously, with my professional progression as well.”