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MLS's New Club Has a Mexican Upbringing

League Branching Out With Chivas USA

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page D01

Since Major League Soccer was launched nine years ago, league officials have scrambled for ways to attract Mexican American fans. They spent millions of dollars to sign flashy goalkeeper Jorge Campos and two of the biggest goal scorers in Mexican soccer, Luis Hernandez and Carlos Hermosillo. They held Latino nights and invited Mexican league teams to play in U.S. stadiums.

Nothing seemed to work, which was a problem for the fledgling circuit. Although the league has done well with fans from El Salvador and Bolivia, especially in the Washington area, about two-thirds of the 40 million Hispanics in this country are of Mexican descent. Instead of attending MLS games, league officials slowly learned, potential fans chose to watch their favorite Mexican teams on Spanish-language TV each weekend.

Supporters of new MLS team, Chivas USA, cheer their side in an exhibition match last week. The league hopes the Mexican-operated club will bring sought after Mexican American fans. (Stephen Dunn -- Getty Images)

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"We needed to shake things up," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, "and this will shake them up."

In a radical approach to league-building, MLS has put aside its pursuit of Mexican players and other gimmicks this season and has brought in a Mexican brand name: Chivas.

CD Guadalajara, better known as Chivas (or Goats), the most beloved club in Mexico's prosperous professional league, will operate one of MLS's two expansion teams. Known as Chivas USA and sporting the club's traditional red-and-white striped jerseys, the club will share Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., with the Los Angeles Galaxy, a charter member of MLS.

It will make its debut tomorrow afternoon when it hosts defending champion D.C. United in MLS's nationally televised season opener.

"We needed to spend 10 years establishing the foundation and being orderly and systematic about how we were building the league, and we need to continue to do that," Garber said. "But we also need to recognize that there's an aspect of this sport that we haven't been able to capture as much as we thought we would and as much as we need to -- and that's the Hispanic audience.

"To do that, you have to do it in an authentic way."

The idea was presented to MLS by Mexican millionaire Jorge Vergara, the eccentric owner of Chivas's parent company, as well as Costa Rican club Saprissa. Vergara, 50, and his partners paid about $25 million for the right to run the MLS team and to play at Home Depot Center, where he will base team operations. MLS had tried to persuade Vergara to place the team in San Diego or Houston, but he insisted that the Los Angeles area, which has attracted millions of Mexican immigrants, was the only place it could work.

"We knew that the owners of MLS tried to have Mexican players to get that coverage here, but that wasn't enough," Vergara told the Los Angeles Times. "They needed the shirt -- the colors, the tradition, the passion."

MLS not only welcomed Vergara's cash, but it also hailed his energy and exuberance, which will contrast sharply with the public personas of the league's other major investors -- Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, all low-key operators.

Vergara made his fortune after founding Omnilife, a weight-loss and nutritional products company that had an estimated $1 billion in sales last year. Like Anschutz, he has financed motion picture projects, most notably "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and is involved in lucrative real estate projects.

Vergara purchased Chivas in 2002 and immediately made a public-relations splash by buying newspaper advertisements ridiculing fallen opponents. One such ad referred to the Mexico City club Pumas as "Pussycats."

"We have started to rekindle the passion in football, which had gone to sleep and become monotonous," he said at the time.

Chivas is unofficially Mexico's Team, a soccer equivalent of the Cowboys or Yankees, with a nationwide following rivaled only by the country's national team. What has intensified the bond between the club and the public, however, is the fact that it has never employed a non-Mexican player.

MLS restrictions on foreign players make it impossible to form such nationalistic rosters, but that hasn't prevented Chivas USA from putting its Latino stamp on the team. Of the 28 players, all but four are Hispanic. Chivas USA Coach Thomas Rongen, a native of the Netherlands who has coached in MLS most of the last nine years, enrolled in an intensive Spanish language course during the winter in order to communicate with the players.

The team is centered around longtime Mexican midfielder Ramon Ramirez, but also includes a Costa Rican, several Americans with Latin backgrounds and two former United players who were selected in the expansion draft (Brazilian forward Thiago Martins and defender Ezra Hendrickson from St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

Chivas's preseason preparations have not gone smoothly, however. Ramirez quit the team, claiming he couldn't get visas for his domestic help, but then was persuaded to return. Another player, midfielder Alonso Sandoval, decided to stay in Mexico. Goalkeeper Martin Zuniga might be sidelined for months because of a knee injury. And a 7-0 exhibition loss to the U.S. national team recently showed that the team might not be ready for real competition just yet.

Nonetheless, MLS officials see Chivas's arrival as a new twist on the American professional sports landscape.

"It's good to shake up the pot, and Jorge Vergara is one of those guys who believes that there's a lot of soccer left in this country that still can be captured by MLS," Garber said. "It's going to be unique, it's going to be a challenge, it's going to be exciting, it's going to be passionate, but as a league we're ready for that."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company