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Despite Chivas USA's misstep, Garber still bullish on MLS in L.A.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, center left, still defends Chivas USA owner Jorge Vergara, center right, for wanting a second team in Los Angeles.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber, center left, still defends Chivas USA owner Jorge Vergara, center right, for wanting a second team in Los Angeles.

It doesn't take much to jog the memory of MLS commissioner Don Garber and take him back to 2004, when MLS was embarking on its first expansion in seven years.

Dave Checketts was set to bring a team to Salt Lake City, but what really caught Garber's eye was the proposal of Chivas Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara, along with brothers Antonio and Lorenzo Cue, to bring a second team to Los Angeles.

"We were so excited about it," Garber said by telephone. "Vergara and Antonio Cue had this unique and special vision that we thought would differentiate this club from any other MLS club and really differentiate it from the LA Galaxy to specifically target the Hispanic audience and capitalize on probably the most national brand in Mexico and around the world, which is Chivas Guadalajara."

Garber and MLS were ultimately persuaded to bring Vergara and the Cue brothers on board, and Chivas USA was born. Ten years later, the dream lies in ruins. On Monday, MLS announced Chivas USA would cease operations immediately= and the club would eventually be replaced by a new L.A.-based entity, which will begin play in 2017.

Garber's tenure has been marked by an impressive string of successes, especially when it comes to expansion. In particular, the decision to expand into the Pacific Northwest has proved to be a masterstroke. Chivas USA, however, will likely go down as the league's biggest blunder. Garber spoke of "internal challenges," as they related to the ownership group, ones that ultimately resulted in Vergara and his wife, Angelica Fuentes, buying out the Cue brothers in 2012.

Thomas Rongen was the first of nine head coaches in 10 seasons of Chivas USA -- a further reflection of the club's constant state of change.
Thomas Rongen was the first of nine head coaches in 10 seasons of Chivas USA -- a further reflection of the club's constant state of change.

The decision to share what is now known as StubHub Center with the Galaxy proved disastrous as well, as it hindered Chivas USA's attempt to establish an identity apart from its L.A. rival. Many factors contributed to the team's demise, but Garber singled out the decision to specifically target the Hispanic market while aligning with the brand of a single Mexican club.

"After 10 years, we've realized that the strategy was just not on target," he said. "In so many different ways, it didn't capture the attention of the Hispanic market. We learned that Hispanic soccer fans are no different than any other soccer fan. They just want to connect with a club that they believe in, regardless of how the team might want to present themselves to them as fans."

To this day, Garber still defends Vergara, Fuentes and the Cue brothers, despite the numerous missteps. Those include the two discrimination lawsuits filed against the club after Vergara and Fuentes bought out the Cues and Vergara allegedly told the club's employees, "If you don't speak Spanish, you can go work for the Galaxy, unless you speak Chinese, which is not even a language."

The embarrassment extended to the field as well, with the club failing to reach the playoffs the last five years of its existence, while its average attendance of 7,063 was the worst in the league by some distance.

Hopes were high in 2005, as team owner Jorge Vergara greeted fans at Chivas USA's inaugural match.
Hopes were high in 2005, as team owner Jorge Vergara greeted fans at Chivas USA's inaugural match.

"I think it was more a bad idea than bad execution," Garber said. "Hindsight is 20/20. I'd do it all again the same way. What I hope everybody can remember is at that time, MLS was in a very different place than it is today. Things were really difficult. [Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake] were our 11th and 12th teams. Next year, we'll have 20. It's a difficult business that we're all in, whether you're in soccer or any other professional sport. Everything needs to be perfectly aligned. Unfortunately, it didn't happen with Chivas USA, and we've learned from some of the decisions we made then and now have put a new strategy in place that addresses all of those decisions."

The details of that strategy will be revealed Thursday, when the new ownership group presents its plans -- and itself -- to the public for the first time. What will garner the most attention will be the new club's plans for a new stadium. That will prove to be the single biggest factor as to whether the new club will succeed or fail.

Like so many matches before, Chivas USA's final contest was played in front of a sparse home crowd.
Like so many matches before, Chivas USA's final contest was played in front of a sparse home crowd.

Garber later said on a conference call that the goal is to have a stadium site near downtown L.A., though he added "or connected to the urban core," which gives him enough room to drive a semi through. A site near the USC campus, where the L.A. Sports Arena now resides, is an area of focus, though Garber declined to rule out any other potential sites.

As for the wisdom of putting another team in L.A., Garber remains convinced it's the right move. The combination of new local owners, a stadium plan and the needed time to get it right make him bullish that a second team in L.A. can work. The fact that the league is stronger today than it was when Chivas USA began is an added benefit.

"The sport is so much more popular in this country and Canada than it was 10 years ago, in every way," he said. "In almost every box that represents opportunity, those that were not checked in 2004 and 2005, every one of them is checked today."

They will need to be. MLS has failed with one club in the L.A market already. The next incarnation represents its last chance.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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