With Martin Vasquez at the helm, Chivas USA look set to resurrect their original plans of being a "club deportivo."By Greg Lalas
People usually drop the "C.D." these days. But officially, it has never gone away. Those two letters dangle out there as always at the front of C.D. Chivas USA’s name like a Mexican flag on the front of a politician's Cadillac.
C.D. Club Deportivo. The message is clear as day: This is a Hispanic club, mi hermano.
Or it was. Being a strictly Hispanic club didn't work, and the model was quickly scrapped after their embarrassing debut season in 2005. But now, four years and four playoff appearances later, indications are that the club is looking again to resurrect its original ambitions. From my perspective, it's a smart move for a team that has garnered relatively little attention and failed to forge a strong identity.
It starts with Martin Vasquez, the Mexican-American coach recently hired to helm Chivas USA. A three-year MLS veteran with the Tampa Bay Mutiny (now defunct) and the San Jose Clash (now the Earthquakes), as well as a ten-year veteran of the Mexican leagues, he arrived at the club as an assistant to Bob Bradley, who was hired to right the ship after the debacle of 2005. Vasquez probably understands the mistakes of the club's debut season better than anyone.
"The objective of the president and the owners was to come into this league and have Mexicans and Hispanic players," Vasquez tells me. "They were a little ambitious at first because the level of players we brought in were not the right players."
Basically, Chivas's jefe, nutritional-supplement mogul Jorge Vergara, and his partner, Antonio Cue, with the help of their Dutch tactician, Hans Westerhof, tried to compete in MLS with a bunch of cut-rate, crocked, and over-the-hill Mexicans—though I always liked mid-season acquisition Paco Palencia—and a couple of token gringos (including a promising young 'keeper named Brad Guzan). The strategy smacked of outdated arrogance on the part of Mexican soccer's establishment and, predictably, it failed embarrassingly.
The first thing Bradley did ahead of Season Two was convince the ownership to scrap the Hispanic-only model. He acquired proven MLS veterans like Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov and drafted young American talents like Jonathon Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan. (Bradley also signed U.S. international John O’Brien, whose injuries sadly limited him to only one appearance and countless what-ifs.) Results, predictably, improved—so much so that Chivas made the playoffs that year.
After Bradley jumped to the U.S. national team, his replacement, Preki, again with Vasquez as an assistant, led the club to another playoff appearance in 2007. They repeated that feat again in 2008 and 2009.
Vasquez, who left Chivas in July 2008 to be Juergen Klinsmann's assistant at Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, returned to the club after Preki left for Toronto FC in the winter of '09. On the field, he inherits a team with a strong, if aging, core and that same crop of young talent—though the likes of Kljestan and Bornstein aren't rookies anymore.
"The locker room has been good locker room," he says. "Leaders, professionals, guys who have shown commitment. Guys who identify with the colors and want to win trophies. I think players like Sacha with his experience and abilities, Bornstein; three years ago, they were the young players. It's time for those guys to step up."
"We have a good base of Hispanic players on the team and they will have that opportunity to show their stuff," Vasquez says. "We need the Hispanic players to step it up and give us an identity."
You might wonder what makes anyone who witnessed the ugliness of Chivas USA, circa 2005, think anything will be different this time around. After all, just importing another regiment of Mexicans—or Guatemalans or Hondurans or whatevers—won't guarantee more wins or more attention. But it does sound as if Vasquez, Vergara, and Co. have learned their lesson on how to go about it.
"[The owners] mentioned they would like to see somebody that we can bring in who will identify with the Mexican fans," Vasquez says. "But they also understand the mistake we made the first year. If we can bring two or three players, from Mexico or Central America—Hispanics to make team stronger—we will do that. But it has to be the right player."
Greg Lalas's column, The Target Man, appears on Wednesdays exclusively on Goal.com
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