When owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes sold Chivas USA to the league last week it closed the book on a tumultuous and ultimately ill-fated era.
Make no mistake, Jorge Vergara’s legacy in MLS will not be positive.
He may have taken the leap of actually creating a second Los Angeles team and undertaking an unprecedented step in MLS history by aligning so closely with a popular foreign team – something that is being done once again, in modified form, with New York City FC – but beyond that, the Vergara era of Chivas USA won’t be recalled fondly.
Following the news of the team’s purchase by the league last week, reaction to Vergara’s stint as owner of the club has been swift and almost universally critical. Given the many, many missteps over the decade since the team was created, that isn’t a surprise.
Though Vergara owned at least half of the team since the club’s foundation in 2004, his greatest input on the team came during just two years: 2005, Chivas USA’s first season, and 2013, after he and his wife, Angelica Fuentes, bought out co-owners Antonio and Lorenzo Cue. In the interim, the Cues were much more active partners in the day-to-day operations. In hindsight, it looks like no coincidence that Chivas’ best years on the field came in that span, as they made the MLS Cup playoffs in four straight seasons from 2005-09.
In that first season, Vergara was heavily involved in trying to implement two key strategies. First, he wanted to replicate the Chivas de Guadalajara formula as much as possible in MLS by fielding a predominantly Latino roster (Chivas de Guadalajara only fielded Mexican players, something that gave them and their fans a great deal of pride) and claiming to implement a "Latin" style of soccer in the United States.
Second, in execution nearly all of the players sent to Chivas USA from Mexico were either youngsters just getting their start in the professional game, or very famous players who were nonetheless well past their prime. Needless to say, the 2005 plan didn’t work, as they fired their first coach early in the season, brought in reinforcements to the roster midseason, and only won four league games all year.
Under future U.S. Men’s National Team coach Bob Bradley in 2006, then Preki the next three years, Chivas USA were successful on the field, not only outperforming fellow 2005 expansion side Real Salt Lake, but also the LA Galaxy, their local rival and stadium-mates (Chivas have always played in what is now called StubHub Center, which is owned by the Galaxy’s owner, AEG).
Meanwhile, they were carving out a decent niche for themselves off the field. Attendance was solid, in line with league averages, if not exceptional. There was a sense that Chivas could be competitive, and certainly prior to the age of the Designated Player in MLS, they were. All in all, the team looked to be building a solid foundation for the future.
While 2010-12 -- the last with the Cues as co-owners of the team -- weren’t great years, last season was truly disastrous. The team started well in the first month but were well out of the playoff picture by June, won just three of their final 29 matches and finished with just 26 points, the second fewest in the league. The disastrous season played out in front of an announced average crowd of 8,366 spectators, the sixth worst figure in the league’s 19-year history. It was the worst average attendance for a MLS team in 10 years, a period in which just three teams failed to draw at least 10,000 fans per game. And frankly, the quoted attendance number was heavily padded, as the actual number of people in the stands at most matches was closer to the 2,000-3,000 range. The atmosphere was often muted, though the team’s Supporters Groups made enough noise to partially counteract the thousands of empty seats in the stadium for each game.
When the Cues were involved in the team, the team appeared to be frugal but still stayed within general expectations for spending around the league. Billboards advertising the club were visible throughout the Los Angeles region. The team attracted a racially diverse group of fans that was largely Latino, but with an inclusive air. Though Vergara was believed to be contributing financial support, the Cues were running the team’s operations.
Reportedly, the Vergaras offered the Cues the chance to buy the rest of the team in 2012, but the brothers could not afford it, and were bought out themselves. Looking back, the shaky standing of the club’s finances were clear to see from that point forward.
When Vergara and Fuentes took over full control of the team in the fall of 2012, there were mixed opinions. Certainly, 2005 was an awful debut season for the team, but perhaps Vergara learned his lesson the first time? Maybe he wouldn’t make the same mistakes once again?
In a press conference following his 2012 buyout of the Cue brothers that will now go down in infamy, Vergara made many brash proclamations and bizarre claims, but it seemed he missed the point regarding the problems of the club.
"We can’t be any worse," he said. "The team has broken all records; from most goals received to longest losing streak. A member of the community told me earlier this morning that seeing Chivas USA on the field was like waking up with a different wife every morning because Chivas didn’t use the same line-up for more than one game."
In fact, he made the existing problems much worse. Repeating the same exact mistakes that doomed the team’s on-field performance in their inaugural season, Vergara and his management team stripped the team of nearly all MLS experience through a series of laughable trades, brought subpar players from Mexico to replace the players shipped out, and proceeded to treat Chivas USA as a minor-league affiliate of Chivas de Guadalajara. And this, while spending about $500,000 less on player salaries than the next cheapest team in the league.
But that’s only the on-field side of the matter. Marketing the team in 2013 was nonexistent, the team could not be watched on local television in Los Angeles for nearly all of last season, and accusations of racism permeated the club like a stench all year.
As Chivas USA fans know, race is a contentious subject when it comes to the team and MLS. For years, supporters have been subject to critiques and even outright hostility about the team’s Mexican identity. When Vergara promised to return the team to its Mexican roots for the 2013 season, opinions from fans were mixed.
But the revelations concerning multiple racial discrimination lawsuits filed against the team last year from former employees appeared to be a turning point. Though they were allegations, not proven in a courtroom, the mismanagement went well beyond the run-of-the-mill owner who didn’t know what he was doing. This was giving the team, its fans, and the league itself a black eye.
"If you don't speak Spanish, you can go work for the Galaxy, unless you speak Chinese, which is not even a language," Vergara allegedly told a group of assembled club employees in November 2012 following the takeover, which came to light in the racial discrimination lawsuit filed by former Academy director Teddy Chronopoulos and former Academy coach Dan Calichman.
With an apparent misunderstanding of American labor laws, team President Jose David, appointed after the ownership change, allegedly told Chronopoulos and Calichman that the team’s efforts to make the team more "Mexican" from top to bottom was indeed the strategy moving forward. This followed up on comments David made to team supporters in October 2012, when he proclaimed, "Mexican owners finally own their Mexican team."
With mounting evidence and lawsuits filed concerning racial discrimination at Chivas USA, HBO’s "Real Sports" program aired a segment investigating the club in July 2013. Featuring interviews with Chronopoulos and Calichman, former player James Riley, and a parent of an Academy member who was uncomfortable with the questionnaire sent to parents asking for the citizenship and heritage of all Academy players and their families, the segment was damning. For a team that did not get much press at all, getting attention this negative was embarrassing. Though former player and front office member Juan Francisco "Paco" Palencia spoke on behalf of the organization in the "Real Sports" report, his responses were poor, and his dramatic walk-off during the interview only made an already bad situation worse.
"Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes are famous in Mexico not really because they are both successful business people, but because they own Chivas."
Tom Marshall is a writer based in Guadalajara who covers Chivas de Guadalajara for ESPN. He’s seen his share of puzzling incidents from Vergara on the Mexican side in recent years, and with the original Chivas team sinking into a quagmire of its own, he says the sale of Chivas USA, like anything involving Vergara, is big news in Mexico.
But with MLS a level removed in Mexico, the big narrative associated with Chivas USA was why Vergara was involved in the team in the first place.
"The media and fans in Mexico never really grasped what the point of him owning Chivas USA seemed to be," Marshall told The Goat Parade. "It just seemed to be a general headache when the flagship club Guadalajara was struggling."
When Vergara bought Chivas de Guadalajara in 2002, they were the most decorated club in Mexican history, with 10 first-division titles and a host of other trophies. Since then, they have won just one league title, and while Chivas continues to be one of the most popular teams in the country, bitter rival Club America have caught up in the all-time league title race, while Chivas have been mediocre-to-terrible in recent seasons.
Chivas de Guadalajara even found themselves caught in a relegation battle after finishing 16th in the 18-team table in both the 2013 Clausura and Apertura. Although they look safe for this season, they will need to continue to improve in the coming years in order to ensure they avoid the drop. Chivas is one of only two teams in the league that has never been relegated, and there is considerable pressure on the team to make sure they don’t go down now.
Perhaps one of the other motivating factors, besides pride, for Chivas to stay in Liga MX is the Estadio Omnilife. Opened on the outskirts of Guadalajara in the summer of 2010, the stadium cost a reported $200 million. The location of the stadium, away from the bustling city, and the increased costs of attending matches, have made it difficult for many fans to attend games. Add to that a string of dismal seasons, and stadium attendance has been consistently disappointing. For those who have had a joke at Chivas USA’s expense for its attendance problems, it appears poor attendance is a hallmark of Vergara’s teams in general.
There have been whispers that the cost of building the Estadio Omnilife left Vergara and Fuentes overextended and unable to invest in their Chivas teams. I asked Marshall about this, and while he agreed, citing the sale of Mexican minor-league affiliate Club Tapatio as a cost-cutting measure that Vergara admits was a mistake, he didn’t believe Vergara was going to sell Chivas de Guadalajara, despite persistent calls from fans for him to do just that.
"With the money he raised from the Chivas USA sale, the rational thing would be for the owners to invest in Chivas Guadalajara and help revive a flagging side," he said. "My feeling is he will do that out of pride, to not to be seen to have failed."
But general cynicism also colors views of Vergara in Mexico: "Most Chivas fans just seem to think he'll use the money from the Chivas USA sale elsewhere in his business empire," Marshall noted.
"In general, Chivas fans are just down on Vergara. There have been too many bold grandiose statements and not enough winning football matches."
For Chivas USA fans, an identical feeling prevailed until news of the sale finally broke.
"Obviously it was all lies."
Chivas USA fan Julio Ramos, known widely as "El Chiva Mayor," doesn’t mince words following the news of the sale.
As the head of the Chivas USA supporters group that had pleaded patience for Vergara’s stated vision, Ramos clearly does not feel management was being straight.
The club had two surviving Supporters Groups in 2013, and they used different approaches. Ramos’ group, the Union Ultras, publicly supported the Chivas brand and were in regular conversation with club management and even Vergara himself regarding the direction of the team. Though they were upset at the abrupt firing of head coach Chelís and wrote an open letter expressing their disappointment at that decision last year, they worked with the club and tried to give Vergara the benefit of the doubt.
In contrast, the Black Army 1850 publicly championed the #VERGARAOUT hashtag on twitter, and while they also had a relationship with management, ties deteriorated over the course of the 2013 season, as the group’s criticisms of the club’s direction piled up. Their sustained criticism certainly inspired solidarity from other Supporters Groups around the United States, and even led to a successful campaign to hire a plane to protest Vergara’s ownership of Chivas USA that flew over the stadium during a game against the LA Galaxy.
But even among the different approaches, one thing is clear: both groups are pleased to see the back of Vergara.
"Thank you soccer gods!" says John Sandate, better known as "ELAC," a member of the Black Army, following the sale. "After 10 years of doing things the wrong way, [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber made the right choice and forced the sale."
Ramos agrees, and expresses betrayal at the promises directly made by Vergara.
"We had many talks with ownership, with Vergara. And all the time, they were selling us BS," he said. "We sat down with them for hours, and talked about the future of the club. Then all of a sudden, we hear about the news of the sale of the team, and it was a slap in the face."
Does that mean Ramos is disappointed to see Vergara sell the team?
"Listen, we’re happy about the ownership change," he said, though he did express some disappointment about the disappearance of the Chivas name and colors in the future.
Still, the fans have been almost unanimous in their satisfaction about Vergara’s departure. Anybody who knows sports knows that while fanbases usually rally around the team, differences of opinion and rifts among supporters are common. That Vergara managed the team so poorly to give two Supporters Groups with very different approaches the same conclusion is quite remarkable.
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"There is no Mexican way or American way to own a club in the MLS. There's just a right way," Sandate said.
She lives in Southern California.
Perhaps that will be the legacy of Jorge Vergara in MLS. A man who had grand promises who was so unsuccessful that he rallied the remaining fans of the club around a common cause. There will still be differences in opinion, and nobody knows what the future holds for the club. But the supporters have clear ideas of what can make a new Vergara-less Chivas USA successful.
Ramos elaborated: "Our main objective is to make sure the new ownership knows is that we don’t want a Mexican team, we want a team that represents LA. The team of the pueblo, of the people of LA. Hard-working people."
After a decade of failure, this may be first time there’s a genuine and widespread sense of hope. Now, the league must find owners who can carry out a revival of the club, and not only reward the fans for their patience, but help the team, not to mention MLS, reach greater heights.