For 5,571 loyal fans at the StubHub Center last October, Chivas USA’s last action as a Major League Soccer franchise was a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. However, those following the academy can look back on a different highlight: a quarterfinal matchup against FC Barcelona at the 2015 Mediterranean International Cup tournament in Spain.
“We don’t get that opportunity every single day,” Chivas U-14 coach Brian Kleiban told SI.com. “That’s what you look forward to. These local match-ups are great, but you can’t compare it … to having these opportunities to play the best of the best.”
Despite inducing Barcelona into launching repeated atypical long balls out of the back with its high pressure, Chivas USA lost, 2-0. Barça took an early lead as prospect Anssuname Fati, known simply as "Ansu," cracked home a volley from outside the penalty area on a bouncing ball in the 10th minute.
The second goal of the game followed 11 minutes after the start of the second half.
“I feel like we created some good opportunities; we found a good rhythm for a 10-, 15-minute span in the first half when I was pleased,” Kleiban said of the latest game. “It’s always the what-ifs, right? Bottom line, they’re Barcelona — we’re Chivas USA. We’re not there yet. … It would have been good news for U.S. soccer in general, but we couldn’t get the job done.”
Chivas USA’s frustration increased as the match wore on, and the Barça players ran down the clock with time-wasting techniques commonly seen from Spanish first teams. Kleiban was eventually sent to the stands for his vocal protests to the referee.
An absolute extinguishing of Chivas USA looms following a piece of news that came less than a week after Kleiban’s stateside return. Through the coaching education company Kleiban operates with his brother, Gary, came the announcement that he would join the LA Galaxy academy for the 2015-16 season.
Rather than assuming any piece of the tainted Chivas USA infrastructure, even its most successful aspect, new MLS franchise LAFC has left its academy as an afterthought for when it finds some stability of its own.
The team is scheduled to begin play in 2017 pending the approval of a stadium plan and will eventually compete in the Development Academy, along with every franchise in the league.
“We had to start our own history, and we had to kind of put away the negative history and legacy of what Chivas had done. What they had done the past several years really just destroyed any sort of, I'll call it, equity that they had left over.” LAFC managing partner Henry Nguyen said in a town hall meeting in Seattle on April 26. “Even just us trying to maintain whatever infrastructure was there keeps that Chivas legacy on us, and we're a clean break. People always ask me, ‘Oh, you guys are replacing Chivas?’ No, we're not replacing anybody. We're a brand-new club.”
Nguyen said the short-term focus for LAFC has to be on finding a site for its new soccer-specific stadium, echoing what team president Tom Penn told SI.com in January.
“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 said. “In the early phases here, we’re hyper-focused, obviously, on the big issue of [building a] stadium.”
However, allowing the Chivas USA academy to stagnate and its members to find other places to play and coach seems like a missed opportunity. Kleiban’s signing only strengthens an already robust academy in Carson and puts LAFC farther behind the curve for when it begins operations.
“We have had multiple meetings with multiple folks across youth soccer,” Penn said. “In this market, there’s just so much opportunity and so much talent.”
Kleiban, 35, will join Mike Muñoz, a fellow Chivas USA defector in 2013 during the franchise’s most tumultuous time that saw other coaches from the academy file discrimination lawsuits against the team. Muñoz currently coaches the three Galaxy teams playing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and former MLS defender Pete Vagenas is the academy director.
Kleiban declined to discuss the specifics of his move to the Galaxy, citing the club’s desire to wait until he officially moves in June. He follows other Chivas USA academy staff in finding jobs elsewhere; academy director Sacha van der Most and fitness coach Claudio Trabattoni joined the USL’s Orange County Blues as assistants ahead of the 2015 season.
The Galaxy will be Kleiban’s fourth youth coaching role. He started with Orange Soccer Club and subsequently moved to Total Fútbol Academy and then Chivas USA, all in his native Los Angeles area. He was director of coaching at TFA, where he refined the possession-based curriculum that has seen him become the subject of multiple rumors in the American youth coaching community since the parent Chivas USA franchise folded.
Kleiban’s eventual goal is to coach a professional first team using the same methodology that has placed several of his players on the U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams at various times in the past year. His development philosophy has proven effective at the younger age groups, but Kleiban said he thinks it would translate to the higher levels as well.
“That’s the objective,” he said. “I feel ready, and I’m hoping that sooner than later, I’ll have an opportunity to showcase myself at the highest levels here in the MLS.”
As they did in moving to Chivas USA, Kleiban’s players will likely try to join their coach with the Galaxy. LA operates multiple teams besides those that play in the USSDA, including a second U-14 group coached by MLS legend Mauricio Cienfuegos.
The federation and MLS discussed other possibilities to keep the Chivas USA academy afloat, but ultimately, nothing came through. The league operated the academy since terminating the franchise and will continue to fund it through the end of the current season, but it did not contribute financially to any MIC tournament costs.
Instead, the Kleibans’ company, 3four3, sponsored the trip, along with the players’ families and a “private sponsor.” (The players even wore suits emblazoned with the company logo to games.)
The April 4 quarterfinal wasn’t Kleiban and his players’ only match against Barcelona. In 2013, much of the same group, representing their previous club Total Fútbol Academy, traveled to the tournament and tied Barça in the group stage before knocking out Ajax on penalties in the quarterfinals and losing to Barcelona in a semifinal rematch.
After the recent tournament, Kleiban stayed in Catalonia to attend training sessions and speak to coaches at Barça’s fabled La Masia academy and continue learning about the club’s methodology that forms the basis of his coaching philosophy. He watched the Barcelona “B” team and U-18s and U-19s train in the mornings, followed by the younger players in the evenings.
“I’m in tremendous debt, every single time, [for] the experience that I’ve had there,” Kleiban said. “Everybody was very complimentary on the process of seeing our group for years now and seeing the consistency of our product. There’s legitimate respect there, and everybody made me feel very welcome.”
Kleiban and Muñoz are two of the best youth coaches in Southern California, and their expertise along with the merging of two deep player pools should provide a serious challenge to any incoming franchises, even those as flush with money as LAFC’s 22-owner group.
“After the Galaxy shared their vision for the academy and how they are currently working on executing that vision, being part of that was a no-brainer,” 3four3’s announcement of Kleiban joining the team reads. “This joining of forces, in the nation’s most talent-rich region, is mammoth. Now, it’s time to get to work.”