Brent Latham: The Chivas model doesn't work in the United States

Jorge Vergara wants to transpose the Chivas model to the sister MLS franchise, and Brent Latham takes issue with his approach.
I’ve defended Chivas Guadalajara's all-Mexican policy more than once in recent months in this space. I find the concept of a team that puts the well-being of the national game first - and backs it up with personnel choices - appealing and even admirable.

I don’t think you have to be a fan of Chivas to be a fan of the Chivas concept. An all-Mexican team committed to the values and success of soccer countrywide makes a lot of sense to me.

In fact, I think there should be more such all-national teams around the word, just like Chivas.

I’m not convinced, though, that there should be, or can be, more around the world. Stripped of its Mexican-ness and contrabanded across borders, the Chivas ideals morph quickly from something that breeds pride and respect to something decidedly ugly and confused.

To understand that, all you had to do was listen to Jorge Vergara’s ridiculously pompous approach to the Chivas USA press conference he hosted last week. First, the Chivas and Chivas USA boss insisted flippantly that everyone should learn Spanish (reasonable but inappropriate advice to a room full of professionals), then, apparently in broken English if the transcript is to be read verbatim, he made a series of ridiculous declarations that prove simply and succinctly that absolutely nothing has been learned from nearly a decade of futility at Chivas USA.

To say there’s a double standard at work here would be an understatement. Because contemporary racism and xenophobia are blurry gray patches on a slippery slope, it can be helpful to judge these sorts of things by turning them around.

So, let’s imagine a U.S. owner buying a Mexican club, watching it struggle for years, then arriving in Mexico to declare - after telling everyone to learn English - that the club simply isn’t Anglo-Saxon enough and that the Mexican coaches have been overlooking the physical prowess of the players of African and/or U.S. descent while favoring Mexicans’ technical abilities.

The length of time we would need to wait before he was run out of town as a racist could be measured in milliseconds.

Vergara is right at least that there are numerous good Latino players out there, some of them overlooked, and that the skill and guile Latinos generally tend to bring - to fall into stereotypes ourselves for a moment - add a desirable element to any team, in MLS or elsewhere.

But to build on the concept of turning things around, Vergara has no more right in the U.S. to demand a more Hispanic team than any other owner would to ask for a team comprised exclusively of players of European, African, or Asian descent.

It’s also indisputable that MLS already has Latino players everywhere. There are plenty of conflicting opinions out there on how to best build a soccer team, but it’s pretty clear that no one in American soccer is turning away Latinos out of spite.

To suggest that is so is not only ill-informed, it’s divisive and inflammatory, and has little place in an American game where racial harmony - and indeed tolerance of other groups marginalized just about everywhere else in sport - is the rule rather than the exception.

What we have here is a concept innocent enough in Mexico that turns ugly in mis-translation. There are ways to import the nationalistic Chivas model without it becoming not only anti-American, but also something few friends of equality and harmony anywhere would want to be associated with.

But Vergara isn’t on that track. Instead, he’s opted to open a dialogue on the attributes that particular ethnicities bring to the field.

“They forgot to use the technical advantage and the speed of the Mexican or Hispanic players,” Vergara said at his press conference. “It became, it became nothing. We didn't play like the U.S., we didn't play like the Mexicans, we didn’t play like nothing.”

Believe it or not, Mr. Vergara, it is possible for a soccer team to succeed without identifying solely with one nationality, ethnicity, or race. In fact, it’s quite common nowadays.

But let’s forget the improper grammar, skip the chance to tell Vergara to learn English, and even give him a pass on the discrimination issue - though American coaches and commentators in other sports in the past have been shown the door for stereotyping no less racist than this.

The bottom line is that these comments are simply outdated, reflecting only a colloquial and stereotypical understanding of MLS, and very poor knowledge of the contemporary game in North America (few knowledgeable observers would accuse Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez of being overly technical, or Dempsey of being a powerful brute).

That confusion, though, is likely what causes Vergara to fall back on what he knows - exclusionism. But in a diverse U.S. league and market, that particular competitive marketing advantage is never going to prove bankable.

In Mexico, the Chivas concept works on many levels, because the criterion is the local nationality. Bring that across the border, and you have to find a matching criterion. American-ness doesn’t work with the Chivas brand; perhaps regional players from the Los Angeles area, California, or something of the like - regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin - could.

But when the criterion as far as anyone can tell is simply race or ethnicity, you’re not only asking for problems on the field, but for a justified backlash of rejection off it. No wonder Chivas USA has found so few fans. Exclusionist concepts based on nationality may pass the litmus test sometimes, but those grounded in race or ethnicity are bound to fail, both off and on the field.

This particular model has no place in American sport.