Even in the deadest part of the sports calendar — mid-to-late July — MLS hasn’t been able to take advantage of a American audience starved for sports content. Wednesday morning, the league woke up to a public relations headache thanks to an HBO “Real Sports” piece by Soledad O’Brien that detailed the discrimination lawsuit filed against Chivas USA by a pair of former coaches.
The crux of the piece centers on the Chivas USA’s owner, wealthy Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara, who it’s alleged decided on the eve of the 2013 season to adopt a policy similar to the one of the parent club in Guadalajara which fields only Mexican or Mexican-American players. The coaches who filed the lawsuit allege they were fired because they didn’t, among other things, speak Spanish. The flash point of the piece came when O’Brien interviewed a Chivas director about the club’s youth-team questionnaire and promptly cut it off.
Google “Chivas USA” and the fourth link is from ABC News: “Is Chivas USA a Racist Soccer Team?” Granted, this information has been out there for a couple months, but only now drawing more attention due to the “Real Sports” investigation.
Both MLS and commissioner Don Garber declined to be interviewed by “Real Sports.” Garber issued a boilerplate statement and that the league couldn’t comment due to the ongoing litigation. Wednesday afternoon Chivas offered this statement in response to the piece:
“We are disappointed by the intent of some individuals who have chosen to use our diversity to define our club as a racist and discriminatory environment by reporting an incomplete and one-sided story in order to damage the image of Chivas USA and the hard working individuals who are part of our community.”
As bad as it might look for both MLS and Chivas, there’s a potential silver lining. Independent of the club’s alleged pro-Mexican policies, it’s been a disaster at the gate averaging a league-low 8,715 fans. This represents a 33 percent drop off from 2012. The club’s remaining fans have been fed-up with Vergara, who will always favor the main club in Guadalajara. There’s also a feeling they’ll always be a second-class citizens to the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Stub Hub Center.
More than that, prior to the Real Sports story, odds are a whole lot of people had no idea the club even existed. (Chivas USA is the only pro franchise in a major U.S. sports league that doesn’t denote a city/state/place in its name.) MLS has taken strides in recent years with successful expansion teams in places like Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, etc. It’s done a fine job rebranding the Kansas City Wizards into Sporting Kansas City. The league is on an uptick, the climate is drastically different from where it was back in 2004 when it welcomed in Chivas, which as the story went, would be a team Mexican-Americans would flock to support. In 2004 MLS was only a few years removed from contracting teams in Miami and Tampa and the promise of a rivalry in Los Angeles seemed to good to be true.
Turns out it was.
All is not lost. As ugly as a potential discrimination lawsuit might be, it could potentially open the door to move or re-brand the club. ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas has been banging this drum since the beginning of the MLS season. If done properly with the right owners, Los Angeles should easily be able to support two MLS clubs, rather than having one languishing like Chivas is at the moment.
Chivas USA is ripe for the pickin’. Buy it, rebrand it and relocate it within LA.
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) July 24, 2013
If not in Los Angeles, there are countless other metropolitan areas in the United States, think Atlanta, Orlando, St. Louis, among others, which would welcome MLS with open arms. Granted, for anything to happen on this front Garber and the MLS office would have to interject themselves into the situation. Atempting to strong-arm Vergara into selling might not be a wise road to go down or precedent to set.
Still, the fans of Chivas USA — what’s left of them — deserve better and not to be identified with this lawsuit. So does MLS.