Chivas USA has fired its president -- but he was far from the main problem
Chivas USA did three quintessentially Chivas USA things Tuesday night.
The floundering MLS club fired president and chief business officer José David, who had been on the job for about 11 months. Chivas replaced him with Arturo Gálvez, an import from Guadalajara who’s now expected to jump right in and succeed in MLS.
To top it off, it announced the move at around 10 PM Eastern/7 PM Pacific, which is par for the wacky miniature golf course that is Chivas USA public relations. Predictably, the transaction didn’t generate much discussion. Even when making news, American soccer’s sideshow finds a way to remain irrelevant.
Chivas USA seems inscrutable at first glance. But if you're courageous enough to pay close attention, a relatively reliable pattern takes shape over time. Just about everything the organization does can be explained by either its unshakeable belief that Southern Californians inevitably will embrace the Chivas brand or its refusal (or inability) to communicate effectively to the press and public.
According to MLS, an average of 8,230 fans attend Chivas games at StubHub Center. Nobody who actually goes thinks the crowds are that big, but it’s still the league's lowest published total by far. In fact, it’s the worst one-season average in a decade.
If that was David’s fault, then he deserves to go. But Chivas USA’s attendance has been dropping for four years, and it isn’t logical to pin this season’s precipitous 37 percent plunge on one man.
It wasn’t David’s idea to cling desperately to a brand that alienates the vast majority of the club’s potential fan base.
Owner Jorge Vergara, not David, was the inspiration behind the offseason roster purge that gutted the club of numerous MLS veterans and led to charges that Chivas USA discriminated against players lacking Mexican roots.
David isn’t the reason Chivas USA’s current coach, José Luis Real, is the club’s eighth in nine years, not counting the caretakers who filled in following a firing. Nor is he responsible for the frequent front office turnover. No one, from former co-owner Antonio Cué to the departed Whit Haskel, Shawn Hunter, Stephen Hamilton or José Domene, has been able to bring Vergara’s vision to life.
The bombastic billionaire, who founded the dietary supplement company Grupo Omnilife, is the common element. And he doesn’t win on either side of the border. At least Chivas de Guadalajara, which has claimed one of the 22 Mexican league titles contested since Vergara bought the club 11 years ago, can continue trading off an identity that still means something to millions. In Los Angeles, the Chivas logo -- which features Guadalajara’s municipal coat of arms -- will appeal only to die-hard CDG fans interested in spending money on a third-rate facsimile of their beloved team. And clearly there aren’t many of those.
Yet Vergara holds fast to the brand -- “To tell you the truth I don’t think the name is the problem. It’s not a solution that I have contemplated,” he told Hoy Los Angeles in August -- and to the fantasy that the marketers and coaches he imports from Mexico will thrive in MLS.
It's worth noting that when Chivas won in 2006-09 (yes, it once was a playoff team) Americans Bob Bradley and Preki Radosavljevic were on the bench. Its best average crowds came under Haskel and Hunter.
But Vergara isn’t swayed by empirical evidence. He bought out Cué last year and lamented the “divorce from Chivas Mexico.” He said, “We want to convert Chivas USA into the prodigal son that now returns to Chivas Mexico, to take advantage of the 106 years of experience of Chivas Mexico.”
That delusion has resulted in losses, lawsuits and eventually the announced crowd of 5,123 for Saturday’s draw with the Portland Timbers that likely sealed David’s dismissal. Nevertheless, Vergara remains dedicated to taking advantage of those “106 years of experience.”
David’s successor, Gálvez, has an extensive background in Mexican soccer and worked in a variety of capacities for Vergara in Guadalajara. Maybe he’s a miracle worker who will breathe life into the Chivas USA brand despite his lack of front-line familiarity with MLS and the L.A. market. Maybe Real and sporting president Dennis te Kloese (a Dutchman who moved to Mexico and now runs the soccer side of both Chivas teams) will find the formula their predecessors couldn’t.
The early returns (6-15-8 on the field) aren’t good. Lawsuits filed by two former academy coaches and a human resources manager accusing Chivas USA of ethnic discrimination are even worse. Whether or not they have merit, the fallout from those unresolved cases highlights the disconnect between the way the club communicates and the culture in which it resides.
Sending out late-night press releases, which practically guarantees a lack of attention (Chivas did the same when David was hired) is just the beginning. The club’s awkward inability to convey a coherent message was highlighted in July, when HBO’s "Real Sports" devoted a segment to Chivas’ controversial HR practices. Rather than craft an appropriate response HBO could share on the air, Chivas thrust director of soccer Juan Francisco Palencia into the hot seat. The El Tri legend isn’t a businessman, an attorney or a PR professional. English isn’t his native language. He was in so far over his head that his handlers had to cut the interview short.
The one-sided nature of HBO's broadcast put Chivas in the worst possible light, despite the fact that it may have a valid defense.
It employs people from a variety of national and ethnic backgrounds. Chivas theoretically could argue -- to a point -- that a Mexican organization intending to honor its roots is best served hiring people familiar with that culture, in the same way that a French restaurant might prefer French cooks. The club certainly could have offered an explanation for its effort to gather information on the national origin of its youth players, which prompted a line of questioning that flustered Palencia. The truth is, a team arguably would be negligent if it didn’t learn whether a prospective player was eligible for multiple passports, thereby increasing potential transfer value.
But Chivas just took the body blows, embarrassing Palencia in the process. The next day, while commanding the attention of only a fraction of HBO’s audience, the club finally issued a statement. It accused HBO of painting an “incomplete and one-sided” picture (who’s fault was that?) and claimed that its diversity (employees supposedly hail from 15 countries on five continents) was one of its “biggest strengths.” In the garbled syntax that is the hallmark of any Chivas USA release, the club said, “We aim to work in an environment reigned by harmony.”
It was yet another clumsy moment for an organization that can't communicate effectively or get out of its own way. If Chivas is forced to pay up, it very well could be because Vergara himself told employees that “If you don’t speak Spanish, you can go work for the [L.A.] Galaxy.” The buck stops with him, even though he refuses to acknowledge it.
MLS executives, including commissioner Don Garber, have expressed disappointment in Chivas’ on- and off-field performance and have reiterated the league’s commitment to diversity. But they haven’t gone much further. Vergara is a partner. He is an investor in, and therefore a part owner of, a limited liability company.
“People who operate teams in pro sports leagues are business partners. We decided to formalize that in a structure, commonly referred to as ‘single entity’,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott recently told SI.com. “As a partner, you’re subject to all of the league rules and that’s true for everybody, from an operating investor to a particular team.”
Unless Vergara breaks those rules, there’s not much MLS can do other than to continue to offer advice and support through its club services division. SI.com understands that Vergara has been approached by more than one potential buyer interested in purchasing his operating rights. He asked for at least $100 million, the amount Manchester City and the New York Yankees recently paid for their expansion team.
Last month Vergara told Hoy Los Angeles, “First of all, they can’t force me sell the franchise. That’s the reality. We know that there are laws in the U.S. that can’t force me to sell, but there isn’t any intention from their part to force me.”
He acknowledged mistakes without taking responsibility and promised, “We are working to keep improving.”