Keith Hickey: A stadium for Chivas USA will be key to the club's long-term future

For a team struggling to extricate itself from the shadow of two larger clubs, a new stadium would give Chivas USA its best chance to redefine itself.
Chivas USA wants to start over. After eight seasons, six head coaches and zero trophies, owner Jorge Vergara seemingly wants to wipe the slate clean. And who could blame him?

Vergara and his wife, Angelica Fuentes, assumed full ownership of Chivas in August, buying out the half of the club previously owned by managing partners Antonio and Lorenzo Cue, and Vergara seems intent on stamping his own authority on the Major League Soccer side. In a press conference on Tuesday, the Grupo Omnilife founder painted in broad strokes his vision of the club's future.

"On the field, we want the team to play well, to play spectacularly, to put on a show and to have results," Vergara said through a translator. "In the short term, in about two years [we want to be] in the MLS Cup and be able to maintain [that level]. Financially, we want to make money. We want to be in black numbers."

The two main ideas of Vergara's rebuilding project seem to be the construction of a new stadium in the downtown Los Angeles area and a return to the once highly-touted Mexican-focused approach that was eventually sacrificed on the gritty altar of MLS realpolitik.

"We want to bring back the concept that we started with when we decided to become Chivas USA," he continued. "It's a team that has to become an extension of Chivas Mexico with a different philosophy in the sense of the players but the same philosophy of how to play football. How to be exciting, how to be spectacular and of course how to be successful."

"The original idea of Chivas USA -- we're going to achieve that."

Major League Soccer in 2012 is not Major League Soccer in 2004. In that stretch -- with the advent of "MLS 2.0," and all the associated Cascadia Cups and Canadian clubs and soccer-specific stadia and, most importantly, a far better understanding of who American soccer fans are and what they want -- a philosophy that once looked like a life preserver for a league that was taking on water now closer resembles a lead weight around the neck of a potentially key team.

The club's problem is its motley identity. Chivas USA is a Frankenstein's monster of a club, with no soul of its own, cobbled together from the spare parts of other teams. It wears the shirt of a team whose fans care little for its existence. It plays in the stadium of a team that proudly acknowledges the city it represents and does so with far more success. Caught in the shadows of Mexico's most famous team and America's most famous team, without any identity of its own, Chivas USA has failed to catch on with much of anyone.

The Chivas name was intended to be a rallying cry to fans, cashing in on the cachet of Mexican soccer's strongest brand to ignite the passions of the soccer-loving Hispanic community in Southern California. What really happened was that real C.D. Guadalajara fans, raised for generations on a diet of a Mexican-only club policy, didn't really care about this new American hybrid, and fans of other Mexican clubs, non-Mexican Latinos, and non-Latino soccer fans were all alienated by the divisive Chivas name. It's marketing suicide to cater an American soccer team to such a narrow demographic.

That's the bad. The good news from the press conference is Vergara's focus on getting his team a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles.

A new stadium presents the best hope Chivas USA has of blazing its own path to something more than October vacations and good draft placement.

What Vergara needs to do is reposition the club as a beacon to a wider array of Latino and non-Latino fans, not just Chivas supporters, and offer a stark alternative to the overpriced glitz of the Galaxy. It's a common tactic around the world to juxtapose a poorer club as the more "genuine" alternative to an affluent neighbor (Manchester City, Torino, Boca Juniors), and an affordable, accessible stadium in the heart of the city would compare favorably with many to the suburban campus the Galaxy call home.

Despite overtures from other eager locales, Vergara remains committed to Southern California.

"We had an offer from a city in Texas, but it's very clear why we chose LA," he said. "We paid extra to have a franchise here and we're going to continue here. We have no plans to move."

His determination is matched by league brass.

"We are focused on getting them their own soccer stadium," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "The Home Depot Center is going to be its location for the next number of years for sure until we're able to find a stadium to develop and then ultimately build."

If Vergara is really smart, he'll crib a few notes from Sporting Kansas City, to see how that franchise's ownership group turned an MLS laggard into one of the country's leading clubs.

Stranded trying to sell soccer to a(n American) football crowd, Sporting's front office created an inclusive culture that engaged with fans, made the team a part of the community and embraced social media with a sense of humor. Doing so, the club tapped into a younger, more diverse demographic, with LIVESTRONG Sporting Park the centerpiece of a re-brand that transformed Kansas City into one of the most well-supported clubs in American soccer.

Of course, winning soccer games helped. Maybe Chivas should try that.

Zac Lee Rigg contributed additional reporting from Los Angeles.

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