Behind the Rise and Fall of the 10-Year Franchise History of Chivas USA

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistNovember 26, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Chivas USA players wave to the fans as they take the field before playing the San Jose Earthquakes at StubHub Center on October 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The game was the team's last as Chivas USA as they face an uncertain future.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

On the surface, October 26 seemed like any other home finale for Chivas USA at the StubHub Center. 

The fans in attendance were treated to a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. The victory helped Wilmer Cabrera's side earn their third win in the final four games of the Major League Soccer season. 

"I was really just focused on the game," Chivas USA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy said. 

However, once the final whistle blew, reality started to set in. Just a day later, MLS would issue a statement ceasing operations of the club immediately.

After 10 seasons as a professional soccer franchise, Chivas USA was no more. They became the third franchise in MLS history to fold. Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny were dissolved in 2001. 

As he usually did after home matches, Kennedy went out to the crowd and thanked them for their support. But this interaction with the fans would be his last. 

"It hit me a bit when I grabbed my wife and my mom to bring them out on the field," Kennedy said. "Normally I try to get out and shake the hands of some of the fans anyway." 

Despite the poor results of the past few years, the supporters' groups of the club were out in full force to celebrate one final emotional moment with the club. 

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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26: Members of a Chivas USA fan section cheer after the game with the San Jose Earthquakes at StubHub Center on October 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

“To be honest with you, it was difficult," Union Ultras leader Julio "El Chiva Mayor" Ramos said. "But at the end of the day, we're a passionate supporters' group and we will support our team no matter what. It was tough, but it was something that we wanted to do. It was from the heart." 

Kennedy wasn't the only player who was out on the pitch thanking fans that day, but his story resonated more due to his long tenure at the club as well as an emotional photo.

"The kid has come to games every year since he was in diapers. I saw how much it meant to him. In his eyes, it was a sad moment," Kennedy said.

"My mom and wife were just cruising around taking pictures, taking in the moment exactly how I was. I think they really got emotional at that moment as well. They saw how much it meant to this kid."

Things weren't always as bleak for Chivas USA, who entered MLS in 2005 along with fellow expansion side Real Salt Lake

The team, who was owned by Jorge Vergara and Antonio Cue, was supposed to be an American version of Mexican club Chivas Guadalajara. Chivas USA wore the same colors and sported a near-identical badge as their parent club. 

"Obviously Chivas came in thinking they were going to have a huge following because of Chivas Guadalajara and I don't think it ever came to fruition as it was envisioned," Kennedy said. 

Success came quickly for the Goats, who needed just two years to spring to the top of the Western Conference. 

The club was put in the right direction by Bob Bradley, who went on to become the manager of the United States men's national team. 

“When I got there, it was 2006 and Bob Bradley was the head coach," Preki, who was an assistant under Bradley before becoming the head coach from 2007-09, said.

"I just joined the club as an assistant. At that point, the club really wasn't at a good stage. Bob started a process. He changed the squad and that year [2006] was the first time ever Chivas made the playoffs."

In 2007, Preki took over after assisting Bradley during the 2006 campaign, which saw Chivas USA finish third in the West. 

RIC FRANCIS/Associated Press

"Bob left and I continued the process. We still made a couple of changes and tried to get better," Preki said. "From my view, the club was always on the way up and the results were showing that."  

Chivas USA took the Western Conference by storm in 2007 by finishing first with 53 points and 15 wins in 30 games. The club was two points away from clinching the Supporters' Shield, which was earned by D.C. United. 

"We were getting the respect from clubs around the league," Preki said. "People knew when they played Chivas, they were going to be hard games." 

That same year, Chivas USA's biggest rival, the LA Galaxy, made a splash by bringing in David Beckham as the league's first designated player. Beckham teamed up with Landon Donovan to form a star-studded side, but they could not knock Chivas out of first place. 

"We were almost as equal as the Galaxy. We didn't have any designated players, we didn't spend a lot of money. We were on top of them," Preki said.

"The Galaxy was a really good team. They had Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Those are two top quality players. For us to be competing with them and a few times being above them, I think it's a huge success." 

The two stars for the Goats in 2007 were Maykel Galindo and Ante Razov, who finished fifth and sixth in the Golden Boot race with 12 and 11 goals respectively. 

A direct line of communication between head coach and ownership helped make 2007 a dream season for the new kids on the block in MLS. 

BILL KOSTROUN/Associated Press

"My first year at Chivas, I had direct communication with [owner] Antonio Cue," Preki said. "I was able to earn his trust and he was letting me do my job. I take pride in my job and I think I did my job pretty well."

Chivas USA failed to score a goal in their two-leg Western Conference semifinal series with the Kansas City Wizards in 2007, but that did not deter them from making progress the next year. 

In 2008, the Goats continued their success under Preki with a second-place finish in the West. Despite the strong regular season, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals by Real Salt Lake. 

"We had an older group of guys like Ante Razov and Jesse Marsch. It was a really experienced group," Kennedy, who joined the club in 2008, said. "Certainly the structure was there and we were a competitive group." 

“They built a strong squad," Ramos said. "It wasn't just a strong team on the field, there was a strong team in the front office. We used to have more than 15,000 fans in the stadium." 

After the 2008 season, things started to go downhill for a variety of reasons at the club. The 2009 season brought a fourth-place finish in the West, and a playoff loss to the rival Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals. 

"I think we were very fortunate in '07, '08, '09 to have a good team," defender Bobby Burling, who played for the club from 2007-09 and 2012-14 said. "We had a good group of young and old." 

Just like any successful club, Chivas USA saw interest from other teams in their key players. The first of the key players to depart for Europe was goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who earned a move to Aston Villa in the summer of 2008.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 15:  Head Coach Preki Radosavljevic of the Chivas USA looks on from the bench against the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands on August 15 2009 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Im
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Two years later, the departures of Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan to Europe rid the club of the impressive young talent they had developed. 

If there is any positive legacy left by the club, it is the development of three players who went on to succeed at club level and with the United States. 

"We had Bornstein, Kljestan and Guzan make big moves in their careers and Chivas played a part in that," Burling said. "For these players to go to bigger clubs and make their careers, it's really a testament to what they did in MLS and what kind of team we had." 

Before Bornstein and Kljestan left for good in 2010, the team began to fall apart. Preki's final season with the club would be 2009, which would also mark the last time Chivas USA would appear in the MLS Cup playoffs. 

Guzan with Chivas USA in 2008.
Guzan with Chivas USA in 2008.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

"My first year, I actually talked with [owner] Antonio Cue directly. That was the year we had the most success," Preki said.

"After that, they decided to bring on board [former president and CEO] Shawn Hunter and get other people involved. It became a little bit more difficult. Everybody started getting involved, and when everybody started getting involved, that's when things started getting lost.

"The owner believed we all get hired to do certain jobs at the club and that we should all have responsibility. And we should be accountable for them. When people start going into other people's business, that's when things went wrong."

With young stars departing and older players retiring, Chivas USA needed to rebuild. Unfortunately it didn't happen and a downward spiral began.

"After that 2008 season we started losing pieces and then 2009 was Preki's last year. We were a playoff team in 2009. That was Preki's last year and that was the year in which we started losing," Kennedy said.

"I sensed the club was going in a different direction, and I wasn't going to agree with the things they were going to do," Preki said. "The best way was to part ways. Let the people who ran the club do things their own way. Obviously we all found out which way the club went." 

Burling was another to head for pastures new at the same time.

"I left for San Jose after 2009. When I was in San Jose, I was kind of an outsider, but I still had friends on the team and asked them what was going on. It's one of those things where once the results start going wrong, everything starts going the wrong way," Burling said. 

"We had retired players, we lost that core group of guys that everything had been built on and shortly thereafter we lost Jonny Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan to transfers," Kennedy said. "The team was gutted. That was the moment in which we needed consistency." 

Bornstein playing for Chivas USA in 2010.
Bornstein playing for Chivas USA in 2010.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

The wrong form of consistency was found, as the club finished no higher than seventh place in the final five years of their existence. The lone seventh-place finish came in 2014 after the good run of form in October. During that span, Chivas USA would employ five different managers. 

"The biggest mistakes [the owner] made throughout the years were too many changes, it caused a loss of direction," Ramos said.

"Coming full circle looking at the team over the last three seasons, we just didn't really have an identity," Burling said. "We were always in the state of a coaching change or some type of change within the organization.

"As players, we were at fault because the coaching change stems from results. We felt responsible at times, but sometimes certain things are out of our hands."

"We needed a long-term approach to build a vision and no coach was given that opportunity in my mind. From there, it was in constant flux," Kennedy said.

"If you just look around this league and look at the teams that are successful, the majority of them that are successful year after year have been together for a long time." 

In the final years of the club's existence, there were always rumors about the future of the club. No player knew this better than Kennedy, who experienced plenty of ups and downs after joining in 2008. 

“There was quite a bit of speculation in previous years, too. I guess for me being here so long, I've gotten used to it," Kennedy said.

"I didn't have a contract offered to me when they drafted me. I was cut after they signed me. On multiple occasions, [owner Jorge] Vergara would say in the press that I was being replaced before the season even started."

Kljestan left Chivas USA for Anderlecht in 2010.
Kljestan left Chivas USA for Anderlecht in 2010.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

"One of the things I learned how to do was deal with that and whatever was being said didn't matter," Kennedy said. "What mattered for me was my performance, how I acted in the locker room and making sure that the young players on the team understood that." 

Despite all of the rumors swirling about the future of the club, the attitude in the locker room always stayed the same. 

"I would say for the most part, our locker room was a great group of guys. We rarely had a bad apple," Burling said.

"Most of the guys got along, whether there was a language barrier or not. We still like to joke around and do the same stuff. From that aspect, the locker room wasn't a toxic situation at all. It was kept pretty mellow." 

The players received something of a message about the future in 2014, when MLS purchased the club from Vergara who, with his wife, had become sole owners of Chivas USA after they bought out Cue and his brother Lorenzo in 2012. 

Even though the league was in control, no concrete status update was given until October 27 when the club ceased operations.

Burling said: "It was a pretty strange scenario to be a part of. I think most of the domestic players had a better understanding of what was going on whereas some of the foreign guys, who don't really know the league as much as we do, didn't.

"Some of these guys are on loan and moved far away with their families to enjoy life in the States, and to try to have a career in MLS. They kept coming to us wanting answers.

"All we were getting were rumors at that point. It was extremely difficult. With the rumors kind of swirling, people began wondering what their next move was. Wondering what's going to happen. Am I going to be here? Am I not?"

Despite all of the confusion about the club's status, the players rallied to give the fans one final moment to be proud of. Chivas USA rolled off wins over Real Salt Lake, Colorado and San Jose in the final month of the season to lift themselves out of last place in the West. The wins were the first in October for Chivas USA since the 3-0 victory on October 9, 2010 over Toronto FC

CARSON, CA - MAY 26:  Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy #1 of Chivas USA tosses the water bottle aside during the MLS match against the Seattle Sounders at The Home Depot Center on May 26, 2012 in Carson, California. The Sounders and Chivas USA played to a 1-1 draw.
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

"We hadn't won a game in October in four seasons. It was extremely difficult, where all we would hear were rumors," Burling said.

"We couldn't really speculate too much on what was going on. We had to take care of our business on the field, as hard as that was at some times.

"It's a testament to the guys. The last month of the season we were like 'screw it, this thing is basically folding as we know it. Let's just go out and try and put in some solid performances and win a few games down the stretch'."

Felix Borja celebrates the final goal in Chivas USA history.
Felix Borja celebrates the final goal in Chivas USA history.USA TODAY Sports

The final match of the season brought with it a familiar task for the club in regards to the job on the pitch. Despite how well the club played that day, the inevitable was waiting to happen less than 24 hours later. 

"I guess I was just really focused on that game," Kennedy said. "A lot of people asked me leading up to that how I was feeling. To be honest, It was definitely strange, and in many ways, I was ready for this."

Preki was an interested an frustrated spectator as Chivas USA heading to the cliff's edge.

"In my opinion, it's pretty disappointing because I know how hard it is to make it and to make a team become successful," Preki said. "For that all to fall apart that fast, it was incredibly disappointing to me." 

Three days after Chivas USA ceased operations, a new ownership group was led in front of a group of reporters and fans to announce the formation of LAFC, which will begin play in 2017. 

Oct 26, 2014; Carson, CA, USA; Chivas USA starting line up before the start of the game against the San Jose Earthquakes at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Based on everything the ownership group of LAFC has said, the club will not make the same mistakes that Chivas USA once made. 

Another key factor for the new club will be the creation of their own stadium. During Chivas USA's existence, they shared the same building as the LA Galaxy.

"The one thing that is definitely in the right direction is they are trying to distance themselves from the StubHub Center and the Galaxy," Burling said. 

"We were paying rent to use another team's stadium, which is a difficult thing to distance yourself from.

"I think the new ownership group has the backing capable of finding the right situation in LA to build their own stadium; to have their own identity and brand and something that relates well to this area."

LAFC will not go into MLS alone, as the fans from Chivas USA have decided to get behind the new club. 

"We're looking at a bright future. We know we're going to have some investors that are going to build a new stadium and bring in a strong squad," Ramos said.

"They're going to do it the right way. Why do I believe that? Because they have to learn from the many mistakes Chivas USA made. I'm very confident we're going to have a strong team." 

Despite all the early momentum behind LAFC, the work behind the scenes must be done in order to put out a successful product in the first year.

Nick Ut/Associated Press

"It's always going to depend on the ownership. Who they hire, how they run the business, what their goals are, are they going to get designated players," Preki, who now manages Sacramento Republic FC of the USL Pro league, said.

"These are all of the factors that play into it. It's not easy to become successful." 

"You have to find a way to win," Kennedy said. "I think they do have an advantage over Chivas with that. If you want a great atmosphere in Los Angeles, winning is the key ingredient." 

As for the future of the players, they were subjected to a dispersal draft on November 19. The only player not involved in the process was young Mexican forward Erick "Cubo" Torres. His future should be determined by mid-December per a report on MLSSoccer.com

Kennedy was selected first in the Dispersal Draft by FC Dallas. He was one of seven players selected by the 20 teams in the league. The goalkeeper was the only league veteran chosen, as the other six were young up-and-coming players. 

Nick Ut/Associated Press

"The reality is for the last few years I've been dealing with new teammates and coaches anyway," Kennedy said.

"The location is most likely going to be different, but in terms of adjusting to a new environment, I think I'm quite used to that. I'm embracing it and I'm excited for a new challenge and hopefully put some more wins in that W column." 

Burling was not selected in the Dispersal Draft, which means he will enter the player pool for the Re-Entry Draft on December 10. Players are usually entered into the Re-Entry Draft when they are out of contract. If he is selected during the re-entry process, his new club has the ability to negotiate a new contract with him. 

"In our occupation, there's always that state of unknown," Burling said. "You can move at any time and it's definitely part of the job description, but at the same time, it is stressful." 

The players have already begun to move on from Chivas USA. The league has, too. But the club's legacy must not be forgotten. If it is, we could be talking about another club following in the path about Chivas USA, which is not something any professional league wants to experience. 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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