With the news that MLS is basically imploding, the mess that is Chivas USA, in order to sell a new MLS team in Los Angeles, it’s worth looking at what that team could and should do in order to be successful. It’s not as if the team itself has been a complete failure since its inaugural season in 2005. In 2007, Chivas USA won the MLS Western Conference. The club developed some of US Soccer’s best players of the past decade: Sacha Kljestan and Brad Guzan both spent several years at Chivas. But the club hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, and the average attendance in 2013 was 8,366–a measly number even by MLS standards. Many things went wrong with Chivas USA, from its choice of home stadium to its awful ownership, and the few in LA who were aware the brand existed are unlikely to miss it.
So what can this new club do to find success in Los Angeles? How can it learn from Chivas’ mistakes, as well as other successes and failures in Major League Soccer? I have a few suggestions that might help the club, henceforth known in this article as LA2, hit the ground running in 2017.
Location, Location, Location. The decision for Chivas USA to play in the same stadium as the LA Galaxy, with its Beckhams and its Donovans, seems at the very least to be misguided. The StubHub center, located on the campus of Cal State-Dominguez Hills in Carson, is hard enough to get to for most Angelenos, many of whom make the trip for the Galaxy because of its big names and fairly consistent success. There’s a reason that there is a solid distance between Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium–each is accessible to different parts of Southern California, and both teams flaunt “LA” in their name to squeeze as much as they can from one of the largest TV markets in the United States.
LA2 needs to set up shop in an area that is central to Los Angeles and the surrounding area, preferably close to young and up-and-coming neighborhoods to take advantage of LA’s growing hipster population. Dodger Stadium led the MLB average attendance numbers in 2013, in part because of its prime location near Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Downtown LA. Suggestions for LA2’s stadium location: Santa Monica (extremely popular beach town that attracts lots of tourists), Hollywood Heights (already popular for the Hollywood Bowl, but construction would be very pricey), Montecito Heights (could build into Debs Park, but unlikely for city to accept), Hacienda Heights/Whittier (more central for Inland Empire/Orange County, would likely get most of the fans east of LA proper).
Proper Ownership: Chivas USA founder and (former) owner Jorge Vergara is everything a team and fanbase never wants from an owner. Vergara alienated everyone from the business side to the many managers he hired and fired over the course of his reign. Vergara’s plan to recreate his Mexican club in MLS was misguided to say the least, the most egregious action being the (alleged) firing of staff who did not speak Spanish.
The ownership group expected to take over LA2 consists of the following, as reported by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl: Henry Nguyen, Peter Guber, Vincent Tan and Tom Penn. Most of these names seem reasonable, if unremarkable, except for one: Vincent Tan. Currently the major shareholder of English Championship club Cardiff City, Tan has a reputation for being the worst kind of club owner. At Cardiff, Tan and his ownership group have already managed to enrage much of the fanbase in his short tenure by attempting to rebrand a club with such a rich history. Cardiff City’s home shirts were changed from blue, which they had been for nearly a century, to all-red to back Tan’s crest redesign, which prominently features a dragon that overshadows the club’s historic symbol, the bluebird. Tan also meddles in transfer and squad dealings, having fired popular club manager Malky Mackay halfway through the club’s inaugural Premier League season in 2014. Cardiff were later relegated back to the Championship
If Tan does indeed join the ownership group for LA2, he should not be made major stakeholder in any case, and his influence on club dealings should be kept in check by the other owners.
Choose DPs Wisely: MLS’ controversial salary cap and designated player rules are often debated by the leagues fans and detractors alike, but the fact is that the ability to pay the big bucks for those precious three roster slots can make or break an MLS club. LA Galaxy’s Beckham signing, while an obvious PR move, revolutionized an already successful brand. Beckham’s jersey sales were gargantuan, and the midfielder brought both fans and trophies to the Galaxy. LA2 must find the perfect players for these slots, without jumping the gun or picking them all solely on their ability to sell shirts. The MLS has become infamous as a “retirement league” for aging superstars, and the early (very early) signings of Kaka for Orlando City and David Villa/Frank Lampard for New York City have proven how true it actually is. LA2 shouldn’t give more than two DP slots to such players, utilizing the last to entice an American playing abroad to return to MLS and help build a new dynasty. Suggestions for feasible targets, based on age and probable club situation in 2017: Hulk (proven goalscorer, big personality, and will sell lots and lots of shirts), Javier Mascherano (versatile, can play defensive midfield or center back, excellent leader), Alejandro Bedoya (experienced in Europe, popular USMNT player, but as of now has not played in a top league, would likely be happy to take the money and finish his career in the US).
Careful Brand Management: Chivas USA was meant to be a “little brother” to the original Chivas, C.D. Guadalajara of Mexico. It’s understandable that MLS thought it would appeal to the large Hispanic contingent in Los Angeles, but it was obviously not sustainable in that it doesn’t appeal to anyone else. You can’t build a global brand by appealing to a single demographic. By starting with big names, an ideal LA location, and a strong but supportive ownership, LA2 could become the next hipster MLS club. A simple name that doesn’t seem too “American” is a good start, as it’s popular as of late to go the Euro route in club naming: see New York City FC, Orlando City FC, and the rebranding of Kansas City from the Wizards to Sporting KC. Build the brand to appeal to all demographics, not just one or two: families and twenty-somethings make up a huge part of the Seattle Sounders fanbase, and they blow all other MLS club attendance numbers out of the water. Support and foster supporters groups early, so that traditions are started quickly–soccer is unique with its flags and songs and tifos, all of which make for an unforgettable and infectious matchday experience. Develop a rivalry with the LA Galaxy that LA2 fans care about. Form a march to the match, Seattle-style, that has the police block off Santa Monica Blvd for an hour as the fans march through the smoke. Take advantage of LA’s lack of an NFL team by building a large stadium and filling it up.
In short, be independent and experimental but follow the trends that matter, and pick players and a manager that are both entertaining and effective. Have a flashy, unique brand that draws fans from all over Southern California. Bust out in 2017 with a killer squad that plays attractive soccer, and focus on trophies from day one. Show the world that the MLS is growing, and that American fans can truly care about soccer.
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