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Soccer vs. Futbol, Galaxy vs. Goats -- L.A.'s Ethnicity as Sport

The arrangement is quintessential L.A. -- a Japanese carmaker is sponsoring the clash between the city’s Mexican and American soccer teams. The new Club Deportivo Chivas USA, a franchise of a fabled Guadalajara team competing in its first Major League Soccer season, will face off against the Los Angeles Galaxy for the first time this Saturday in the stunning stadium the teams share in Carson.

The “crosstown” rivalry is being marketed as the “Honda Super Clasico.” A decade old, Major League Soccer has been a modest success, offering fans an exceedingly pleasant experience but little passion. The hope is that Chivas-Galaxy will help change that, creating on a smaller scale the same kind of storied schism that separates River Plate fans from their Boca Juniors brethren in Buenos Aires, or that pits Arsenal against Tottenham boosters in London.

There is something bittersweet about this quest. Los Angeles is clearly big enough for more than one soccer team, but these crosstown rivalries in the world of soccer tend to take on tribal tones over time, and this one is being consciously marketed that way from the outset.

The Chivas, or Goats, wear the same uniforms as the team in Guadalajara, and their slogan is “Adios soccer, el futbol esta aqui.” The team’s Mexican owner, Jorge Vergara, bluntly told the Los Angeles Times Magazine last month: “It’s the Latins versus the gringos. And we’re going to win.” Until now, Major League Soccer has been able to bring together an eclectic mix of Latino immigrants and suburban Anglo soccer families that doesn’t usually share public space. Will the “clasico” pit these two worlds against each other, becoming a surrogate for the heated rivalry between the Mexican and U.S. national teams?

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Brand loyalties are hard to predict, and sports fans are hardly the most rational consumers, so I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself in predicting total balkanization of L.A.'s soccer world. At least in soccer terms, this is hardly the case of a community spurned by the establishment finally being empowered with an institution of its own. The Galaxy, the most successful MLS franchise, has wooed Latino fans from its inception, finding ways to bring in big-time Mexican stars it could barely afford. Doug Hamilton, the team’s general manager, says the arrival of the Chivas hasn’t eroded his team’s fan base.

He points out that not every Mexican is a Guadalajara fan (growing up, I certainly wasn’t) and that, in contrast to the Chivas, the Galaxy’s season opener sold out two weeks ago. He bristles at the notion that his team is merely the “gringo” team.

So how does this all play out? Does the Galaxy become the team of Anglo soccer moms, Central Americans resentful of Mexican hegemony and Mexicans who dislike the original Chivas? Or is the divide going to be generational, with the Galaxy becoming the team of second- and third-generation Mexicans eager to assimilate?

Soccer, the world’s most popular sport and the only global commercial form of popular culture or entertainment not driven by Americans, still looks at the United States the way U.S. capitalists look at China -- as a vast market of unlimited potential. Vergara’s interest in extending the Chivas brand north of the Rio Grande is understandable.

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But hype only gets you so far. For all his talk of Mexican superiority on the pitch, Vergara needs to field a better team if his Chivas are to win any games. They have two losses and one tie going into the clasico. Guadalajara’s own veteran Ramon Ramirez, one of Mexico’s best players of all time, captains the squad, but it’s an otherwise motley and unimpressive crew, a far cry from the “real” Chivas down south that Angelenos can catch free on TV. And MLS rules preclude Vergara from playing 11 Mexican stars, even if he wanted to.

The Chivas entry into the U.S. league was a bold move, but it would be far more compelling to see Mexico’s professional league create some expansion teams north of the border, or maybe even explore a merger with the MLS, to create a truly North American league.

For now, the Chivas must do better in appealing to non-Latinos. I was struck by the lack of diversity at the Chivas’ last home game on Saturday, an ugly loss to Dallas. The exuberance of Mexican families claiming these Chivas as their own was moving, and I have never been at any sporting event where a higher proportion of fans wore the team’s jersey. But the stadium was only half full, and it was pretty clear which half was missing.


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