Chivas USA: Out of their league

The eccentric owner of a Mexican football club has set up a team in Los Angeles to compete in the US championship. But, as Andrew Gumbel reports, Chivas USA will struggle to inspire new interest in the sport after a chaotic start
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Ask most Americans what sports event has excited them most in the past few days, and they will probably wax lyrical about the college basketball play-offs, better known as "March madness", which reach their climax tonight with the final between Illinois and North Carolina.

Ask most Americans what sports event has excited them most in the past few days, and they will probably wax lyrical about the college basketball play-offs, better known as "March madness", which reach their climax tonight with the final between Illinois and North Carolina.

Or they may point out that the major-league baseball season has just begun and speculate endlessly about the prospects of those eternal rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, whose opening game reprising the titanic struggles of last year's World Series was broadcast nationwide last night.

But this weekend was also the opening of another major-league season, one that has caught much of the country blissfully unaware although its sponsors have been plugging it for some time as the Next Big Thing in American sports. We are talking about football, or soccer as it is known on this side of the Atlantic, a game whose irresistible appeal in much of the rest of the world has yet to worm its way into the hearts of mainstream Americans.

The game is not unknown. On the contrary, it is played with tremendous enthusiasm and dedication in youth leagues all over the country, and the fortunes of the US national team are followed with patriotic pride at World Cup time. The problem is that the parents who turn out every Saturday to cheer on their nine- or 10-year-olds find it remarkably difficult to take the sport seriously on a professional level.

Major-league soccer in the United States has existed for nine years, in which time teams have gone bust, changed names, racked up millions of dollars in debt, moved from one city to another and, despite a gradual expansion of the fan base, generally failed to make more than a cursory impact on the average sports-lover.

It takes quite a specialist interest - or a natural affinity for the sport born of Latin American or European roots - to know DC United were last year's league champions, that one of United's midfielders, Freddy Abu, is just 15, or that Landon Donovan, widely regarded as the country's most promising player, has just signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy. People who follow professional soccer are regarded in the US as almost as eccentric as those who follow professional lawn bowling. When one of this year's two new teams rolled out its Madrid-inspired name, Real Salt Lake, it prompted a newspaper columnist to ask, uncharitably, where the Fake Salt Lake might be.

What the sport badly needs is a gimmick, something to turn it into a national craze. And this season, one man thinks he has found it. He is Jorge Vergara, a Mexican entrepreneur who made his fortune selling dietary supplements and herbal remedies, a man who produces films in his spare time (including the international arthouse hit Y Tu Mama Tambien), and an eccentric who refuses to wear socks, even when skiing.

Most pertinently, Mr Vergara is also owner of one of Mexico's most keenly adored football teams. Chivas de Guadalajara - the Guadalajara "Goats" - who have racked up 10 league championships in the past half-century and pride themselves on never fielding a non-Mexican. Mr Vergara's intriguing idea was this: why not set up a US branch of the Guadalajara team, tap into the vast market of Mexicans and Mexican Americans north of the border, and inject Latin passion into the dogged, work-ethic US approach to the game?

Hence the birth of Chivas USA, the first foreign-owned enterprise to enter the American league. To make the idea more fun, Mr Vergara said Chivas USA would be a Spanish-speaking team with a distinctively Hispanic identity right down to its Mexican playing formation, with three forwards, four midfielders and three men in defence.

He also successfully lobbied to make Los Angeles the team's home city, for two reasons. First, because the City of Angels is 50 per cent Latino, which means there is an automatic four million-strong market of Spanish speakers. And, second, because LA's existing soccer team, the Galaxy, would create an instant rivalry to attract yet more new fans and give Angelenos something to talk and argue about on their Monday morning coffee-breaks. The US league has been so concerned with expanding its geographical reach - its footprint, as it likes to call it - that it has never thought to put two teams in the same city before.

In the heady pre-season days of last autumn and winter, the talk in Chivas circles was of nothing short of a Mexican invasion of El Norte. The response has been tremendous, with ardent bands of Mexican Americans blowing horns and waving red-and-white Chivas banners and screaming " Arriba Chivas!" at every opportunity, whether at pre-season friendlies, or team parties or at PR events at the team's new southern California stadium, the Home Depot Centre, in the industrial suburb of Carson.

Inevitably, reality has kicked in. Importing a team wholesale was never a hugely feasible proposition. First because American league rules put a cap on how many foreigners can play on any given squad - in a new team's first year it is 10, going down to eight in the third season, and second because the best Mexican players are far too well-paid, and far too pampered with limousines, first-class air fares, personal assistants and the rest, to want to move north of the border for a lower salary, a far higher cost of living and a fan base of dubious proportions. In the end, Mr Vergara lured only one bona fide star, the Mexican national midfielder and Chivas legend Ramon Ramirez, and even he is pushing 36 and well past his prime. Club officials acknowledge he probably has only two more seasons in him.

The team, ineluctably, has become a mixture of Mexicans, Mexican Americans and a handful of what are referred to around the club as "token gringos", two blond kids fresh out of college who do not speak a word of Spanish, and the captain of the national team of St Vincent and the Grenadines in the West Indies. The head coach is the silver-haired Dutchman Thomas Rongen, who has been kicking around US major-league soccer since its inception and barks at his team members in an endearing mixture of recently acquired Spanish and English. "On the field and in the locker room there is only one language, the language of football," he says.

If Chivas really is a Mexican invasion, you have to imagine it more as a Terry Gilliam production than as an exercise in Cecil B DeMille triumphalism. Ramon Ramirez quit the team almost as soon as he had joined it because he could not obtain a visa for his nanny. But after a week, he begged forgiveness and returned to Los Angeles. The soccer press, tiny though it is, had a field day.

Then the Goats' star forward, Alonso Sandoval, developed a distressing habit of failing to show up for training. At the team's first formal photo, he was partying 2,000 miles away in Guadalajara. At first he sounded apologetic, saying that he had missed his plane and would be on the next one. But two days later he still had not showed up, at which point he was fired.

The pre-season roster of exhibition games was little short of disastrous, never more so than in a friendly against the US national team on 2 March, which Chivas lost 7-0, David taking on Goliath, and promptly getting stomped. To make matters worse, Chivas's goalkeeper, Martin Zuniga, injured his left knee during the game and was sidelined indefinitely. By late March, the three-four-three formation was starting to look like a liability, so one of the midfielders was dropped back to defence. So much for Mexican style. The Chivas forward line-up - minus Sandoval - also left something to be desired, and rumours flew around the club that the owners were frantically looking for a new striker before the start of the season.

The Los Angeles Times, which had been so positive about the team to start with, began to write distinctly negative dispatches, openly wondering whether Chivas would turn out to be one of the worst teams in the American league. "If they're not careful," the paper wrote, "Chivas USA officials are going to turn their team into just another run-of-the-mill [major league] club."

A couple of days before last weekend's opening match, morale was under strain. Mr Rongen talked candidly about the difficulties of building a team from scratch. "It's a daunting task," he said. "We have to make up nine or 10 years of established history within the major league, and that's very tough. Here we are, trying to integrate new players and we have guys having to relocate from another country having all sorts of difficulties off the field."

A couple of the Mexican players acknowledged the challenge of adapting to the faster-paced US style compared with what Hector Cuadros, a promising young midfielder, called the ritmo pausado, the more pause-filled rhythm, of Mexican football.

On Thursday evening, Mr Vergara was to hold a big press event at which the forecourt of the Home Depot football field would be adorned with a replica of the main square in Guadalajara, including the stone fountain, archways and a cock-fighting arena refashioned into a "Hall of Fame" displaying the Guadalajara team's 10 championship trophies. But as the event began, construction workers were still a long way off finishing the ensemble. Then Mr Vergara failed to show, telling his managers he was feeling "tired". Saturday's noon kick-off against DC United was similarly inauspicious. Of course, nobody could have predicted the Pope would die 20 minutes before the game, an ill omen perhaps, that not only postponed the opening kick but also dashed hopes for significant national exposure. ABC, which had committed to airing the match live, immediately switched to wall-to-wall coverage from the Vatican, pushing the Chivas-DC game to a sports channel where millions fewer were likely to watch.

The Chivas fans did their very best, creating a din worthy of an international fixture as the club laid on mariachi music and authentic Mexican food on the forecourt outside. But the crowd was far from the predicted sell-out, about two-thirds of the stadium's 27,000 capacity. The players, likewise, pushed themselves to their very limit, but could not penetrate the deftly organised DC defence. (And one of their number, the defender Douglas Sequeira, was stranded in Costa Rica with visa problems.) Although they had possession of the ball for far more of the game, they gave up two goals in the aftermath of two substitutions and never looked close to making up the deficit.

Club officials put a brave face on the result, saying the team had given a creditable account of itself although there was room for improvement. Mr Vergara, too, was his characteristically upbeat self. When one television reporter suggested to him at half-time that some in the US were not comfortable with his invasion of the US league, he said: "Wait to see the results we achieve and then people will have open arms for us." Going down 0-2 against the league champions may be excusable, but whether that is the way to start a footballing revolution is doubtful.