April 6, 2007 story on Chivas USA (from Toronto Star)

Chivas makes its mark in MLS

Hispanic fans rally big time behind FC's opponent

Apr 06, 2007 04:30 AM

LOS ANGELES–Three years ago Major League Soccer hatched a plan to win over a city with millions of immigrants, where people loved soccer but just didn't like domestic leagues.

Sounds familiar, Toronto fans?

Before MLS could come north of the border, the league had to conquer Los Angeles, and finally did it with Chivas USA, a sister team to Mexico's most famous soccer club, and the squad Toronto FC faces in their regular season debut tomorrow night.

And by appealing directly to Los Angeles' Hispanic sports fans, Chivas has already grown more popular than David Beckham's future team, the L.A. Galaxy.

After just two seasons Chivas already draws better TV ratings than either of the L.A. area's NHL teams.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said the league recognized quickly that the secret to stability in L.A. was selling itself to the city's Hispanic community.

Before Chivas, no other high level pro team in North America had catered so openly to one ethnic group.

"We don't have to convince Hispanics that soccer is great, but we have to convince them that the MLS is great," Garber said. "Establishing Chivas USA) is the most authentic way to connect to that Hispanic market."

In 2004 circumstances aligned to help create Chivas USA. At the time MLS wanted to tap into the growing Hispanic market in the U.S. Jorge Vergara, owner of legendary Mexican club Chivas of Guadalajara wanted to expand his club's brand beyond Mexico.

Vergara teamed up with American investor Antonio Cue (pronounced Kweh) and decided to establish a satellite franchise in MLS.

After a few initial meetings the league decided to put an expansion team in San Diego or San Antonio, but Chivas officials vetoed the idea.

They said the only place for a Chivas satellite squad was Los Angeles, where about half of the area's 10 million residents are of Mexican heritage, and where the trademark red-and-white striped jerseys are familiar and Chivas name still resonates.

"(The MLS) is still catching up to this thing called Chivas," said Chivas USA CEO Javier Leon.

"It's a very powerful brand. It goes beyond a brand. It's a way of life for some people in Mexico."

In its 100-year history Chivas has won 11 titles in Mexico's first division, including one last season, but Leon says success hasn't diminished the team's grassroots, blue-collar appeal, in Mexico or in the U.S.

Last year Chivas USA celebrated the big club's 100th anniversary by hosting a 100-hour game involving 200 local club teams in the largely Mexican suburb of Bell Gardens.

Despite their success and popularity, Leon says Chivas is not the New York Yankees of Mexican soccer.

"I wouldn't compare it to the Yankees because there's an arrogance about the Yankees that we don't have," Leon said.

Especially not after the team's debut season. In 2005, using players recruited mostly from Mexican second division teams, Chivas struggled to a 4-22-6 record, worst in the MLS.

Last year, though, Chivas outplayed the Galaxy, making the playoffs.

They also outpaced the Galaxy's ticket sales, averaging 15,000 spectators at home games.

And unlike Chivas Guadalajara, which only uses Mexican players, Chivas USA officials say 14 nationalities are represented on their team and front office.

"We're basically inviting everyone to come in and be a part of our culture," Leon says.

"Everyone is welcome. Even Canadians."

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