Chivas USA holding its own in Southern California market

CARSON, Calif. -- Some 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles sits a sprawling sports complex with a main stadium boasting 27,000 seats designed specifically for fans to sit and soak up soccer.

What a waste. Everyone knows real soccer fans don't sit.

Nonetheless, fans from all over the world, religious in their dedication to the pitch, have made the pilgrimage to what is affectionately known as "The Cathedral of American Soccer." Acclaimed as the top soccer venue in the USA, the flawless fields of The Home Depot Center host both the United States men's and women's national teams, and even lured David Beckham stateside to play with the resident L.A. Galaxy.

But another Major League Soccer team also calls the HDC home. And when it's in town, the stadium is filled with the fire and flare of Chivas USA, the only Mexican-owned organization in any major professional sport in the United States.

Major League Soccer, always struggling to be more than a feeble confederation in the eyes of the sport's critical international aficionados, gained a very respectable addition in August 2004. The MLS founded its then-11th member, in the form of a most unorthodox expansion team.

Typically a bunch built for the butt of jokes, expansion teams often pop up in obscure markets, bearing unidentifiable logos and illegitimate mascot concoctions. Not so, Chivas USA. Founded in the image and likeness of the most storied and successful soccer program in Mexico, Chivas USA settled into Los Angeles. The team shared a city and a stadium with another team, but it also showed early promise to provide something different.

The difference would be the team's big sister, Club Deportivo Chivas de Guadalajara, and the radical imagination of its owner, Mexican maverick Jorge Vergara.

A true visionary, the 55-year-old Vergara once sold tacos on Mexican streets before upgrading to the herbal health supplement business and eventually Chivas de Guadalajara ownership in 2002. His goal from the get-go was to expand the Chivas brand any and every way possible. Not long after he took ownership in Mexico, while attending the 2003 MLS All-Star Game (at the Home Depot Center), he sat in a pregame press conference and boldly announced intentions to expand Chivas to MLS -- an idea that had never crossed the minds of most anyone in the biz.

Rumors and rumblings spread through soccer circles like wildfire. Could they really drop a Mexican club in L.A.? There was immediate excitement around the high-profile international investor's interest in a league fraught with struggle. Conversely, there was swirling reticence about adding another team in Southern California, as it would eliminate a new-market venture.

"In the beginning, there was a considerable amount of skepticism and lack of respect among the Mexican soccer establishment about taking Chivas to the MLS. People in that camp -- especially the veterans -- had serious doubts about the value of MLS and the level of the league," says Keegan Pierce, the Director of Communications for Club Deportivo Chivas USA since its inception.

Naysayers aside, Vergara made quick work of his dreams and MLS inaugurated Chivas USA in 2004. The Red and White played its first official season in 2005.

"Vergara was confident in his vision," added Pierce. "He's a guy who has tremendous self-belief and who really sees opportunities where a lot of other people don't. He's essentially a self-made man who created a whole business empire in Mexico himself."

At present, in only its fourth season of operation, Chivas USA and co-owner Vergara recently clinched a third straight MLS playoff appearance, securing one of the eight sought-after postseason spots.

Not bad for a renegade expansion team.

But surely it helps to arrive on the coattails of a club that has been around for 100 years -- and has notched more championships than any other team in Mexico. Chivas USA had a leg up from the outset. The team came to its first day of soccer camp in the U.S. literally dressed for success in the familiar and time-honored red-and-white-striped jerseys that so many people around the globe already knew and adored.

But a ready-made fan base would prove to be both a blessing and a curse in the new neighborhood.

Chivas de Guadalajara has a tradition of fielding a roster of Mexican players -- and only Mexican players. That is, players born in Mexico or of Mexican descent. To many soccer fans, Chivas was synonymous with a Mexican lineup, so there was inherent conflict and confusion about the Chivas USA identity.

"Initially, people questioned whether the team would hold to the ideals of an all-Mexican roster," Pierce said, "but Chivas USA is what it sounds like. It's a mix of Chivas and the rich Hispanic heritage that it brings, mixed with the USA component. That piece signifies the American game and the differences that exist and the diversity that it brings. We have about a dozen different nationalities represented on our roster. From Mexican to Cuban. We have players from Brazil, and Romania, and from right here in Orange County. And over the years, just as the Chivas identity has diversified, so too has our fan base."

One blessing Chivas USA enjoys is a built-in fan club, the rowdy bunch known formally as Legión 1908. With chapters all over the world, the Legión is international, fanatical and fervent in its dedication. Its largest chapter is in Mexico City; the second-largest is in Guadalajara; and right behind that is the Los Angeles chapter, which boasts about 1,500 registered members. The Legión can be seen spotted wearing their red and white, singing and swaying en masse behind the goal in Section 122 at home games.

Interestingly, there is a second spin-off fan club that sits directly across from the legionaries, behind the other goal in Section 101. The Union Ultras are the new school of Chivas fans -- some of whom are former Legión members; all of whom now endorse the movement to support Chivas USA exclusively, as opposed to Chivas de Guadalajara/Chivas USA by default. Whereas the Legión represents a loyalist spirit, pure in devotion to Chivas de Guadalajara and therefore steadfast in supporting its L.A. branch, the Ultras are a nationalist upstart eager to make a name for themselves and their team.

"It's interesting how The Legión and The Ultras really represent the two pillars, so to speak, of our Chivas USA brand," Pierce acknowledges.

From the Ultras mission statement: "This group is determined to revolutionize MLS supporter groups by incorporating a universal, bilingual and diverse approach to creating a fan section that is unrivaled." Led by the giant drum of Julio "El Chiva Mayor," the Union Ultras have fewer members than the Legión but are equally as enthused and ensconced in song.

Stand in the middle of the two fan clubs and you'd be hard-pressed to differentiate between dedicated cheers, sweaty brows or countless choruses. In fact, to analyze the differences between Chivas USA fan clubs is to split hairs. There's too much to this team's big picture to pin on which fan club and why.

At its core, Chivas USA is an MLS team, a professional soccer organization. The only professional sports team in the United States with Mexican ownership. The authentic presence of Hispanic culture uniquely permeates every aspect of the Chivas USA experience from the inside out.

Attend a Chivas USA game and expect multicultural flavor at every corner. In the parking lot, Brazilian barbeque is served up over hot coals. In the press box, Ingrid Hoffmann, host of The Food Network's "Simply Delicioso," hands out recipe cards and spoonfuls of her homemade guacamole. Before the game, Mariachi Monumental de America takes the field for a performance. When the starting lineup is announced, the crowd booms for their captain, veteran Claudio Suarez, who has played for the Mexican national team a total of 178 times (which makes him the field player with the most plays for his country, in the world). Throughout the game, the public-address announcements are in English and Spanish. Walk through the corridors and you'll hear the chatter of a bilingual fiesta. Hit up food courts for a Fiesta Taco Salad, Nacho Camachos, a Jose Cuervo margarita … or just a hamburger and a soda.

It's an experience as distinctive any other on the American pro sports scene. And the most striking vision that symbolically transcends the complexity of Chivas USA's heritage is perhaps the sea of red and white (and blue) that fills The Cathedral of American Soccer a few nights per month.

Chivas USA has arrived. It made the jump holding the hand of Guadalajara, but it made something all its own. And the team is entering the playoffs for the third straight season in its four years of existence. You can't argue with that.

Chivas USA has truly earned its stripes.

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.