Making sense of Chivas USA's tragic run as an MLS franchise
I know how it feels for your team to be a punch line. As a Sunderland fan for almost four decades, the newest debacles always have to be put in the context of what came before:
An 8-0 defeat followed by a 2-0 loss featuring two calamitous errors, infinite GIF image quality goals? Yes, and ...?
It's why, among the soft spots I have for different pockets of fan culture around MLS, there's a special place in my heart for Chivas USA fans, who spent Sunday watching their team play its last game.
Of course the Chivas USA project being the dissatisfying affair it has been from start to finish, it was apparently impossible to officially acknowledge that this was the team's last game -- instead we had the idea of a "hiatus" that just postponed the inevitable until Monday's confirmation the team had ceased operations.
But the fans themselves were in no doubt about what this weekend's game signified and in truth have spent much of this year preparing themselves for some version of the inevitable. The season has been like a muddled up version of the stages of grief. It actually seemed to start with acceptance -- there was an initial "brave face" approach to conversations with interim president and league veteran Nelson Rodriguez, shortly after his appointment in February, that suggested that the fan groups would be transferring their allegiance wholesale to whatever incarnation of the team emerged under new ownership.
When I met Rodriguez just after an opening day win over Chicago Fire, even a man of his positive disposition was marveling at these early positive interactions with the supporters groups, given the uncertain scenarios for the future he was able to outline. He'd also remarked on the unequivocal support for whatever was next from the segment of that support who had initially come to the team via its association with CD Guadalajara, the original Chivas. He'd have understood had such fans' support been contingent on the connection to the parent club.
Some of the positivity has to be understood in relation to the negativity that came beforehand of course.
When the club's owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes were "encouraged" to sell the club back to the league before the start of the season, with Rodriguez appointed as custodian for MLS until a buyer could be found, it ended a tenure and accompanying atmosphere around the club that had become increasingly poisonous for fans and staff (front office and technical staff alike). Some sense of relief was natural.
The long-term fans remain in little doubt who to blame for the club's demise. On Sunday, the longest-standing supporters group, the Union Ultras, unveiled banners reading, "Vergara, the assassin of soccer." But there's a fair argument to be made that the fault does not lie just in personalities, but also in a fault line underpinning the very project itself, right from the start.
I'm not proposing to add to that here. There have been enough words spoken and written about the failure of the Chivas USA idea -- an American version of its Mexico counterpart -- in particular the flaws in the foundational concept of the team.
The idea of an expansion club within the MLS franchise model, that took the concept of "franchise" to method-acting extremes with an off-the-shelf-mini-me team, was always a hard sell within an American soccer field where the fear of "doing it wrong" is one of the neuroses running through the culture of the game. The fact that it was a Mexican club team behind this particular project was a further complicating factor, as the new franchise sought to appeal beyond its immediate fan base to the broader soccer audience. Indeed, since Chivas USA achieved an average attendance of 19,840 in 2006, numbers have steadily declined to the 2014 low of 7,062.
And that fan base in turn became one of the targets for Chivas USA's critics, as the project struggled. The empty seats, the giant tarpaulin draping one end of the StubHub Center on game days, the increasingly non-existent marketing, meant that the few fans who were there were consistently rattling around an empty stadium enduring taunts from outside about the fact that they actually attended matches.
It always struck me as an unfair component of otherwise legitimate criticism of the team -- the fans were consistently given little to hold on to, on and off the field, but persisted with the team for reasons generally far more noble and reflective of their identities as soccer loving Angelenos, than anything the team usually offered them.
And while the Ultras and the Black Army 1850 were not as large as other supporters groups in MLS, at the various times I had occasion to speak to their members (usually, it has to be said, on the occasion of another ownership disaster), I'd recognize a spirit common to fans worldwide -- a recognition of their impotence in the face of ownership whims, but a belief that their collective identity and camaraderie would outlast any individual regime.
So it proved, sort of, though it's a pretty Pyrrhic victory when seeing off Vergara meant seeing off the club as they knew it. And while Sunday's visitors San Jose may have had a miserable season that actually saw them finishing beneath Chivas in the standings (a longstanding benchmark of failure in the Western Conference), they'll have a new coach and new stadium to look forward to next season.
Fandom without a "next season" is a pretty grim proposition. Back to Sunderland, and I remember a team fanzine from the '90s called, "It's the Hope I Can't Stand." At least there was always hope, however misguided, that next year would be different. Chivas USA fans don't have that any more, and at the very least they deserve a nod of sympathy from their fellow fans right now.
That said, as numerous folk examples from American sporting history have taught us, it's perhaps easier to dismantle a franchise than to dismantle a sense of belonging and collective will. I'll admit to grinning widely at the news that the Black Army were offering to stand with visiting supporters on their trips to face the Galaxy next season. This is the fan's art -- grandiose, parochial, contrary, petty and quite, quite beautiful.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.