When you think of the Mexican team C.D Guadalajara, or Chivas as they’re commonly known as, you probably think of players such as Javier Hernández, the iconic red and white home kit and the massive Bimbo logo that’s been plastered across the shirts since 2011. What you probably don’t think of is the strange American offspring of the same team, that played in Major League Soccer for nine years before folding. This is the bizarre story of Chivas USA – the MLS franchise that was destined to fail.
In 2002, Chivas Guadalajara were bought by eccentric businessman Jorge Vergara. Vergara had a bit of an interesting history, shall we say, before he ventured into football. Over a 20 year spell, Vergara went from selling tacos on the streets of Mexico, to smuggling Herbalife products, to producing softcore pornography films (open up an incognito tab and read the synopsis for Y tu mamá también.) His takeover of one of Mexico’s most historic sides came about after someone was needed to come in and take Chivas forward. This was a difficult time for the club as high debts and mismanagement had cost them on the pitch.
Vergara was hoping to return Chivas to its glory days of the 1950s and 60s where seven Liga MX titles had been picked up in eight years. He wasn’t just limiting his ambition to Mexico, though. Vergara wanted to make Chivas a global brand. He genuinely thought he could make Chivas a superclub and be mentioned in the same circles as Manchester United and Real Madrid.
His first step into making this a reality was buying an MLS franchise in 2004. Two years after Chivas had played the MLS All-Star team in 2002, Vergara had set up a sister club for his recently bought Mexican side called Chivas USA, that would play in Los Angeles. It seemed to make sense on paper. The Los Angeles area has the highest Hispanic population in the U.S. 47% (4.9 million people) of Los Angeles are either Hispanic or Latino. If Vergara could appeal to this demographic then the project would be a success.
This would be hard to come by however, as the name already put a lot of people off from going to matches. What about all of the Latino people that supported other Mexican sides? They wouldn’t go and watch a side that had Chivas in its name. So was it just Chivas fans that happened to be living in Los Angeles that Vergara was trying to attract? Even then, there was no guarantee that someone that supported Chivas would want to watch a watered-down version. The whole idea was flawed from the beginning.
Chivas USA’s debut season in the MLS couldn’t have gone any worse. Future American Samoa boss Thomas Rongen was sacked after he picked up one win inside the first 10 games and it ended up being a very long season. There would only be three more wins throughout the rest of the 2005 MLS campaign, and new manager Hans Westerhof couldn’t stop his side finishing bottom of the Western Conference. Not exactly the ideal start for Vergara and his global masterplan.
Vergara understandably wasn’t best pleased and sacked Westerhof. Future United States national team manager Bob Bradley became the new head coach come the start of the 2006 campaign. This would end up becoming a running theme throughout the chaotic existence of Chivas USA. In the nine years the club existed, 11 different managers took charge. Vergara also applied the same scatter-gun policy to Chivas Guadalajara, who under his ownership had 28 managers in 17 years. Bradley knew that if he didn’t get results instantly, Vergara wouldn’t have much patience with him.
The American managed to turn things around though and took ‘the goats’ to the MLS Playoffs. A defeat over two-legs to the finalists of the MLS Cup Houston Dynamo was very much an improvement on the dreadful season prior. Future Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan was picked in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft and won rookie of the year. Jonathan Bornstein had also been picked and stayed with the club for four years. This young potential combined with experience from the likes of current Red Bull Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch, Ante Razov and Claudio Suárez gave Chivas something to build on.
Bradley would leave as manager the following season to join the U.S national team, but that didn’t deter from the best spell in the club’s history. Indoor soccer legend Predrag Radosavljević (Seriously, look up his record for the Tacoma Stars. It’s incredible) better known as Preki, had been promoted from assistant to head coach, and led the side to the top of the Western Conference. At a time when the MLS had changed forever with the signing of David Beckham for the LA Galaxy, Chivas were the best team in Los Angeles.
In fact, the other LA side were humbled twice that season 3-0. Preki and his display of young talent and experience were above and beyond the Galaxy side that finished one place above where Chivas did in their debut season.
A disappointing playoff defeat to the Kansas City Wizards was a bitter end to what had been a great season for Chivas USA. Kansas City finished fifth in the Eastern Conference that season and shouldn’t have been much of a problem. A 1-0 defeat on the road, however, was difficult to turn around and a 0-0 draw at home in the second leg saw Chivas exit the Playoffs at the first hurdle again.
Preki stayed on for the 2008 season, but this would be as good as it got for Chivas USA. Another defeat in the Playoffs at the first hurdle to Real Salt Lake, and again to the Galaxy the next season, would signal the end of Preki’s reign in charge of the side. For Vergara, this would be a huge mistake in the history of the franchise. He wanted success, but Preki was probably overachieving with the side he had. After the dismal first season, no one really expected Chivas to win a Conference title and reach the Playoffs. Sure, not winning a single playoff tie over three seasons was not ideal, but for Preki to go was a massive mistake.
Attendances were pretty good as well for a glorified sister club. Under the three years Preki was in charge, Chivas USA averaged just over 15,000 for home matches. This was the sixth-highest in the league during the 2009 MLS season. By 2014 this had dropped to just over 7,000. The next four seasons would soon become a complete embarrassment for everyone involved with the project.
The 2009 MLS campaign would also be the last for several key players involved with the club. March retired and Kljestan was moved onto Anderlecht. After several years of prosperity, a sad and lonely side that was managed by Martín Vásquez was back to rock bottom of the Western Conference. To top it off, the Galaxy also finished a depressing 31 points ahead of Chivas. This would be the tale for the next four seasons. The memories of beating the likes of Beckham and finishing top of the Conference were now long gone. Chivas would never qualify for the Playoffs again.
Several big names were brought in to try and stop the rot of an embarrassment of a team, such as Juan Pablo Ángel and Carlos Bocanegra, but ultimately that failed as well. In the post-Preki-era, the highest position Chivas finished in was third from bottom in the Western Conference.
Things also started to go very badly off the pitch as well. In 2013, two youth coaches, Dan Calichman and Ted Chronopoulos, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the club, on the grounds they had been dismissed because they were not Latino. Now, trying to become popular and attract yourself to the Latino community in LA is one thing, but being sued for positive discrimination, is another.
Calichman and Chronopoulos weren’t the only ones trying to sue the club for positive discrimination. An African-American former HR manager of the team Cynthia Craig filed a discrimination suit against Chivas USA for the same reason.
Things got so bad that, to damage limitations, the MLS bought the team off Vergara for the start of the 2014 season. The plan was to hold the rights for the club until a buyer was found. Chivas USA needed a clean slate. The side was in complete free-fall and had become the laughing stock of the league. The problem was, if the MLS couldn’t find a buyer for the club, they would have to fold it.
The 2014 Chivas USA season was the saddest and most humiliating season a side has had to face in the MLS. It was like a dog waiting to be put down. As the season drew ever closer to its finish, the end was inevitable. As the attendances dwindled week on week, Chivas USA drew closer to its death.
The last game in the small nine-year history of Chivas USA was a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes in front of a paltry 5,571 attendance. At least the side went out with some pride to their name because after not finding a buyer, the inevitable happened. The very next day, the MLS folded the side.
The MLS turned the vacant space left in the league by Chivas USA into a new LA expansion side and in the same month the side folded, a large investor group bought the side and created Los Angeles FC. The side that is currently home to Carlos Vela is managed, co-incidentally, by Bob Bradley.
Jorge Vergara suddenly died in 2019 after suffering a heart attack. He successfully turned the fortunes around of Chivas Guadalajara, as by the time of his death, the value of the Mexican side had increased by five times since he took over the club in 2002. However, his Chivas USA experiment was a failure of epic proportions.