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Nelson Rodriguez says embattled Chivas USA won't mail in the season

Since becoming president of Chivas USA at the end of last month, Nelson Rodriguez has been busy trying to turn around an embattled Major League Soccer franchise.

The league has affirmed that it wants the team to remain in Los Angeles, believing that there is enough room in the city for two MLS teams. For most of its history, Chivas USA has played second fiddle to the Galaxy in the Southern California market.

At Sunday’s season opener, which Chivas won 3-2 against the Chicago Fire, Rodriguez spoke with reporters at halftime about the team’s situation and shared some glimpses into the future of the franchise.

Goals for this season

Rodriguez was unequivocal about the team’s goal this year: qualify for the playoffs.

“That always needs to be the goal,” said Rodriguez, who is the league-appointed president of the team while the MLS finds a new owner after taking the club off the hands of Jorge Vergara.

Rodriguez seems set on giving the Chivas USA faithful something to remember in the last year of the team’s current existence, so a winning season is a must. But the new president also said he’ll be looking to win some trophies in competitions such as the U.S. Open Cup, where even struggling teams have been known to make a championship run.

“It would be phenomenal to bring home some silverware,” Rodriguez said.

Tough road ahead

Despite the league’s commitment to a second team in Los Angeles, Rodriguez said he is aware of the difficult task of making the Chivas USA franchise successful once it’s rebranded.

“I had no delusions that change in ownership group or my or Coach [Wilmer] Cabrera’s arrival was going to suddenly signal a change,” Rodriguez said. “The fans need to see a tangible difference and it will take time to win them over.”

A good team would be a starting point, but Rodriguez said building a successful franchise will require more than just winning on the field.

“We have to do more to have more fans in our games … that’s not just marketing though, that’s being a good neighbor in the community,” Rodriguez said. “That’s involvement of our players and staff in important community events and sometimes leading those events.”

And although he sounded an optimistic beat, he admitted that it would take a lot of work to turn the franchise around.

“Just look around,” Rodriguez said of the poor showing at the team’s season opener, which drew only 8,320 fans. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be.”

Branding a new identity

Rodriguez said the team will look to be an alternative to the Galaxy, which he referred to only as “the other team that plays here” and hinted that there are many fans the four-time MLS champion doesn’t appeal to. Rodriguez said the new team will try to win over those fans.

“We’re going to look to become that alternative and be very inclusive in the process and very representative of the community in which we live in,” he said. “But there’s no magic wand. We can’t come in and smack it and ‘Presto!’ We have our own stadium and identity. It’s going to be a process.”

Going forward, he said, the team has the resources to be competitive with the Galaxy on the field and in the market.

But for the moment the focus is on having a successful season to close the books on the Chivas USA legacy.

“I think the fact that it’s the last year in an odd way makes it more special because we want to write the most historical chapter in the history of Chivas USA,” Rodriguez said. “We have the benefit of actually knowing that it’s our last year so we have the benefit of trying to find all those ways to make it special and memorable for the right reasons.”

He also said that as the season unfolds, fans might be getting a glimpse into what the future of the club could look like on the field as Cabrera begins to teach his team to play a more “fluid, dynamic game.”

“For right now what they are going to get on the field is 90 minutes of uncompromised devotion to the colors,” Rodriguez said. “As we move forward you’ll start to get a sense of the new direction the club will take.”

james.barragan@latimes.com

 

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