Major League Soccer remains on course to sell Chivas USA by the end of this year and it may do so for a record price. But time could be running out to put a rebranded team on the field in 2015, sources have told SI.com, leaving the league to play its 20th season with only 20 clubs.
SI.com understands that a front-runner has emerged to own and operate the second Los Angeles-area franchise. The investor group includes an “L.A. component,” according to a source, and is prepared to spend more than the $100 million MLS received last year from the owners of New York City FC.
The transaction could be confirmed as early as Oct. 6, when the league’s board of governors is scheduled to meet in Los Angeles.
The owners took a calculated but necessary risk in February when they decided to buy out former Chivas USA owner Jorge Vergara to the tune of around $70 million. MLS wanted a second team in the L.A. market and rightly conceded that the Chivas brand wasn’t the answer. The league asked former executive VP Nelson Rodriguez to head west and take the reins while the franchise was put up for sale. Chivas USA currently is 6-15-6 and in last place in the Western Conference. It will surely miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
That sorry record, along with an average announced home attendance of 7,173 – that’s less than half the league’s next-lowest mark – comprise a legacy that might be an unwelcome burden to new investors. Chivas USA failed, but L.A.’s allure hasn’t been tarnished. The rumored purchase price is testament to that. Rodriguez told SI.com, “There is room in this marketplace for an alternative [to the Galaxy], and I think a committed ownership group that is local and has its own home – wow, that is going to be really powerful.”
To maximize that long-term potential, a new owner’s most prudent strategy might be to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Selecting the right name and logo, hiring a front-office staff, establishing a club culture and finding a place to play while finalizing plans for a new soccer-specific stadium will take time (keeping the team in L.A. and building an arena are conditions for the sale). Most recent MLS expansion franchises enjoyed a two-year runway before liftoff.
Five sources either affiliated with current MLS clubs or who have knowledge of the Chivas sale process told SI.com this week that such a plan is on the table for a new ownership group and that MLS is prepared to play the 2015 season, and perhaps 2016, with 20 clubs.
Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo, which have combined to win the past three Eastern Conference titles, could shift to the West. NYCFC and Orlando City would take their spots, leaving each conference with 10 teams. Atlanta (2017) and the new L.A. outfit eventually would boost the rolls to 22 with Miami, Minneapolis and Sacramento among the frontrunners for teams 23 and 24.
Chivas USA players under contract in 2015 could be loaned out or dispersed via a draft, perhaps as part of the process that will stock NYCFC and Orlando.
One source called the L.A. hiatus a “99 percent certainty” and another said it was “basically a done deal.” In truth, nothing can be decided for certain until new ownership is in place. All options remain in play officially.
In reply to SI.com's request for comment, MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said, “We remain focused on the process for selling the club to a new owner, which we hope to complete by the end of the year. We do not intend to comment further on the sales process until it is complete or on speculation about the status of the club.”
Rodriguez, who spent 14 years at the league office in New York, is going about his business as if there will be a team on the field in 2015. He has little choice. The sale could take longer than expected or the new owners might decide to play through the rebranding process. It would put some strain on the league’s equipment supplier, adidas, but it could be done.
Chivas USA’s StubHub Center lease expires at the end of the current campaign but likely would be renewed for the sake of continuity. Rodriguez said, however, that if Chivas or its replacement takes the field next year, it needs as much separation from its former landlord as possible. It requires more practice space, more office space and something resembling its own identity.
“I spent some time about four months ago talking to people at Sporting Kansas City about how they managed their transition. They played in that minor league baseball stadium for a couple of years before rebranding, and then they went into a new stadium with a new name [in 2011]. They continued to operate at that time and that proved to be very effective. They were able to do things while operating as the Wizards that they couldn’t have done if they ceased operations,” Rodriguez said.
“Last week, I spent two days driving around Southern California looking for potential training sites for next year. We submitted ticketing revenue projections for next year. We just did that [Thursday],” he added. “We are plowing ahead toward 2015.”
Chivas will do so unless its new owner slams on the brakes. L.A.’s second team has been second-rate for far too long. It’s logical to expect that investors staking $100 million and the cost of a new stadium on the city’s soccer’s fans will want to leave the past behind and take one or two years to get things right. Considering the consensus that emerged in this week's conversations with multiple sources, that’s what plenty around the league are anticipating.