March 9, 2014
By Charles Cuttone
Chivas USA renovation off to an encouraging start
Major League Soccer has two major reclamation projects going on. One is in Los Angeles and the other has a heavy Los Angeles flavor to it.
|Chivas USA fans show their approval of the team’s new start Sunday at the StubHub Center.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
The reclamation project in Toronto, led by former AEG boss Tim Leiweke is more of a sure thing. Chivas USA, maybe not, but there is some hope.
Toronto FC started with a great fan base, one of the best in the league, but years of abuse and lack of results on the field eroded that base.
Leiweke took on the Reds renovation armed with the huge checkbook of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which is owned by Rogers Communications and Bell Canada. The former Galaxy boss has spent liberally to bring in designated players Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto, and former MLS MVP Dwayne DeRosario, along with the promise of a major stadium renovation. If nothing else, the brash Leiweke is good at spending his employers’ money. He did so in LA with the Galaxy, building not only the brand and the fan base, but the on-field product.
The Chivas situation is not as much of a sure thing.
With the club faltering miserably under the ownership of Jorge Vergara and Angela Fuentes, MLS saw no other course but to buy them out and take over the franchise.
A rebranding and a new stadium, as well as a new, hopefully deep-pocketed owner with a passion for the game and a vision for the team in LA, are coming.
In the meantime, the team opened its 2014 season with barely 20 of its most ardent supporters chanting and dancing behind the goal, and an announced crowd of 8,320, probably double the actual number in attendance. The fans’ frustration with the former ownership was clear, including a large “Thanks MLS” banner displayed by supporter’s group the Black Army, which ended their boycott.
At the start of the potential turnaround is Nelson Rodriguez, longtime right-hand man to MLS commissioner Don Garber , a soccer lifer and as bright an executive as you will find in the league.
Talking with Rodriguez, you get the feeling this is the job he was born for, or at least spent his entire life waiting for.
A New Jersey native who grew up in the era of the Pele- and Franz Beckenbauer-led Cosmos, Rodriguez recalls an impromptu family vacation, which came about after watching a Cosmos playoff game in front of a record crowd of 77,691 at Giants Stadium on a Wednesday night. The following morning, the Rodriguez family packed into the car and drove to Fort Lauderdale for the return match, without tickets. They got into the game, and the young Rodriguez watched the match sitting on a fence behind one of the goals.
Clearly Rodriguez, who says he quickly jumped at the opportunity to come out to LA from New York and steer the league’s takeover of Chivas USA, is a good starting point for just that.
He has the passion for the sport, and the vision of what the team can become in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest market and one of its most culturally diverse.
The next step is going to be a deep-pocketed owner with a vision and passion for the sport. It’s great for the chief executive to have that, but the guy who is putting his dough on the line needs to have that as well.
Look at what Arte Moreno has done with the Angels, and what the Magic Johnson led-group has started to do in revitalizing the Dodgers. Maybe Magic and his group would be a good option for Chivas USA, especially since, with their purchase of the WNBA’s Sparks, they seem to be making a hobby out of collecting flagging LA sports franchises.
But Magic’s famous smile isn’t going to be enough. Chivas USA needs a new stadium, and a new brand that’s not just a name, but an attitude. That comes from ownership.
It is possible. Look at the success story in Kansas City. Legendary sports financier Lamar Hunt could not make the sport go in that market. A new ownership group, led by young visionary executives with deep pockets, have turned Kansas City into one of the best soccer markets in the country.
There’s no reason to think that in a market of nearly four million that it can’t happen, and Rodriguez thinks the opportunity to start effecting that change can begin now.
“I think the fact that it’s the last year [before the team is rebranded]makes it special, because we want to write the most historical chapter in the history of Chivas USA, and we are the only group that will be given that opportunity,” he said at halftime of Sunday’s game. “We have the benefit of actually knowing it’s our last year, so if we have the benefit of trying to find all those ways to make it special and memorable for the right reasons.”