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Oct 29, 2005

Searching for a solid identity

Chivas USA's strength is perhaps turning into a weakness. The strong ties with Guadalajara mean that the promise of the new expansion club has some strings attached.

In 2004, Jorge Vergara seemed like a man who simply needed the challenge of new mountains to successfully climb. His club in Mexico, Club Deportivo Guadalajara, had charged into the prestigious Copa Libertadores Cup. The team he owns in Costa Rica, Saprissa, had won yet another league title. Both of the clubs had rosters predicated on a nationalist principle ? only players born in the country of the team could suit up for the squad. In a sporting world where owners often spend buckets for the best foreign talent as a quick fix, the development of local talent was a mark of pride for Vergara's clubs.

Yet Vergara was venturing into uncharted territory by becoming an owner of a team in Major League Soccer. Unlike the principle of the other teams he runs, Chivas USA was not to be a club composed solely of American players born in the United States. Nor was it to be, as Vergara once trumpeted, "Latins" versus "gringos". With the league limiting the number of international players on the roster, and a salary cap imposed by the structure of MLS, Vergara couldn't stock his lineup with only Hispanic players.

He did manage, however, to impart a distinct Mexican stamp on the team. Nearly all of the club's international players were from Mexico this past year, many from the young reserve team of Guadalajara. The lone exception was Costa Rican Douglas Sequiera. Many of the American players selected for the team were of Mexican descent.

"Chivas" is actually the nickname of Mexican team, but it became part of the official name for the U.S. squad. The fan magazine for the club from Guadalajara, which has nearly a hundred years of tradition, shared page space with the new MLS team. Vergara dubbed the team the "little brother" of Guadalajara and held preseason training for the players in Mexico. When the seal of the new club was revealed, it was in fact nearly identical to that of the Guadalajara club.

The transition of the Chivas brand would prove to be the easy part. Integration as a force in the league would be another matter. The learning curve has been steep for Chivas USA the first year.

"We didn't underestimate the league - but we did think it was going to be easier," admitted co-owner and president Antonio Cue.

Some of the problems began early. Francisco Palencia had been announced as a Chivas USA player, but he requested permission to stay with the parent club to see them through their Libertadores campaign.

Marquee signing Ramon Ramirez actually quit the team briefly when his children's nanny had problems obtaining her visa to accompany the family to the U.S. A number of the young players Chivas added to the roster suffered from homesickness and a bit of culture shock in the U.S., missing the close-knit communities they had left behind.

Cue acknowledged the team had failed to anticipate such issues.

"It's hard for our players to adapt. There's immigration things that our players have to go through. There's a lot of things that happen off the field that affect our players on the field. We didn't realize that was going to have such a big affect on the players. It's a different country; it's a different way of life. That was another big mistake - to underestimate the challenge of bringing players from abroad."

The results on the field did little to boost the team morale. After winning only one game in ten matches, original coach Thomas Rongen was sacked by being bumped to an administrative position and Hans Westerhof, who had previously coached the Guadalajara club, took over the reins. The losses kept coming, however, even when Palencia, along with new signings Juan Pablo Garcia and Sergio Garcia, finally joined the squad.

Chivas USA eventually finished last in the league, their 4-22-6 record just above the historical worst-ever for an MLS team. Attendance fell below expectations, with the team never managing a single sellout, even in its debut.

The club did manage success in certain areas, however, as general manager Whit Haskell pointed out.

"Our TV ratings have been good. Our merchandise sales have been strong. Our sponsorship deals lead the league. We lead the league in jersey sales. What a great foundation for the first year, considering the difficulties we've had."

Other hopeful signs included the breakout performance of the club's young goalkeeper, Brad Guzan. Francisco Mendoza's play drew interest and offers from clubs in Mexico. The team drew in a significant number of fans on the road as well. They were ardent supporters that brought a new energy level to the MLS stands, even if they were often wearing the jersey of the Mexican squad.

Yet the affiliation with the Guadalajara squad would prove something of a two-edged sword.

In order for the club to prove that it was bringing something new to the league, Chivas USA implemented an attacking style of football modeled on the three striker formation of the club in Mexico. Chivas USA often played with only three defenders. This proved fatal - as the club routinely lost leads or ties in the second half.

Vergara had promised "Real football is here," lightly mocking the American term, "soccer". Even if a more defensive style would have yielded better results, the pressure to maintain the ideal of an offensive squad continued, even when it seemed clear the team did not have the players to pull it off.

Other moves would haunt the team. In the preseason, former Galaxy coach Ralph Perez sought to get a tryout for a prospect he believed had potential - Herculez Gomez. It was the other Los Angeles team, the Galaxy, that finally signed the Mexican-American player. The striker finished second in goals scored only to his teammate, U.S. international Landon Donovan, as both helped lead the Galaxy into the postseason. Guzan, meanwhile, was benched twice during the season -- despite being the only keeper to earn wins for the team -- until his season ended with surgery to repair broken facial bones after charging a player to save a shot and taking a knee to the face.

Vergara opened his pocketbook for his new signings, and was still stymied somewhat by the MLS salary cap. Because soccer is far more popular in Mexico than the U.S., most players can earn more there than elsewhere, so the incentive to go to another league, especially one with as little tradition as MLS, is low.

"We're within the salary cap in MLS," clarified Haskel. "We need to play within the rules and we're playing within the rules."

He did express that there were difficulties in dealing with the cap.

"I think if you're talking about a team that's coming from Mexico, with a hundred years of tradition, that would like to have something similar to what is in Mexico, to have the nine international slots on the team be Mexican, it's going to cost more than it would to have players that are, say, Central American or Caribbean. So it is limiting, but it's what we're faced with. I think we're pretty competitive."

Palencia, for one, did not agree with the image many in leagues abroad have of MLS ? that it is an ideal league for foreign stars to retire to.

"No, because if you're near the end of your career, you can't really play in this league. Physically, this league is much stronger than a lot of others. The difference with Latin American soccer isn't better or worse, but it's definitely faster game play here. It's strong."

He outlined some of the contrasts.

"Here it is a more vertical style of play. In Mexico, you have more ball possession and circulate the ball more from one side to another. In Mexico, there's more inspiration and creativity in the play - here it is much more mechanical."

Although he played in only the final games of the season, Palencia proved to be the wily veteran of the team, scoring goals and providing leadership to young prospects like Juan Pablo Garcia, who arrived in MLS brimming with enthusiasm, hoping a stint in the American league would help launch an overseas career.

"It's a good step for me to come to Chivas USA. I'm hoping to provide a lift for the team - they haven't done well, but I want to improve all that. I want to give all for the people here who support Mexico and Chivas USA. They're going to respond when they see our effort."

Cue was also optimistic about the upcoming season.

"We've adjusted now. Obviously, the young players are getting more experienced. The team looks better. What I think is important is that we're getting to the place where we know what players we're going to keep for next year and we can see clearly where we still need to improve. Next year, we'll have a great offseason and start the season well."

There is still much unsettled, though some signs are promising. For starters, coach Hans Westerhof is returning for another season. He had joined Vergara's enterprise as a director of player development. The move into coaching was only precipitated by the dire circumstances of Chivas USA. Westerhof met with Vergara after the last game of the regular season and agreed to resign his administrative position in order to focus on managing the team next year.

The biggest question mark for the team is Palencia. He would seem to be an ideal foundation player for Chivas USA, as he speaks English in addition to his obvious soccer attributes, but his status remains in flux.

Since touting the expansion club's arrival, Vergara had stepped away from Chivas USA somewhat, letting Cue handle the fallout from the tough season, but he recently brought up his new club, though it wasn't in a supportive fashion. He stated that it had been a mistake for him to send Palencia away from Guadalajara, since the team in Mexico is now struggling in their season.

Vergara might have been trying to deflect attention away from the fact that he fired the coach, Benjamin Galindo, who led the Guadalajara club to such success in Libertadores. Bringing Palencia back could be a quick solution to appease discontented fans of the Mexican club. Whether or not Palencia stays with Chivas USA may well determine, for fans and observers alike, if the MLS club is truly a valued "little brother" of Guadalajara, or the red-and-white striped stepchild.

Palencia didn't draw much difference between the two.

"The pressure is the same. Both Guadalajara and Chivas USA need results, so there's equal pressure. So there isn't much difference there. Obviously, the soccer in Mexico gets more visibility, while here it's growing a little more. In some ways, it's more pressure that we're putting on ourselves - and we have to battle that so that things go well."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com