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A set defense for Beckham

Times Staff Writer

On the day the Galaxy announced that it had signed David Beckham to a Major League Soccer contract, the question came up almost immediately: How could its local rival Chivas USA possibly respond?

Alexi Lalas, the Galaxy’s president and general manager, had a ready answer. “Not just Chivas, but the entire league reaps the benefits of David Beckham coming here.... Although they’ll want to beat us on the field, they’ll also thank us in many ways.”

Well, maybe.

“I hate them,” said Antonio Cue, co-owner of Chivas USA along with Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara, who also owns Mexican league champion Chivas de Guadalajara and perennial Costa Rican power CD Saprissa.

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Cue acknowledged, however, that AEG, which operates the Galaxy as well as the Chicago Fire and the Houston Dynamo, had staged a coup in bringing Beckham to MLS in a deal cumulatively worth as much as $250 million, including endorsement income.

Perhaps as much as one-fifth of that amount will soon be realized when the Galaxy announces a five-year jersey sponsorship deal. Cue, who is finalizing an agreement with Chivas USA’s own jersey sponsor, cannot fault AEG’s business acumen.

“I hate them on the field. But they’re very smart people, so they must be doing something right,” Cue said.

Meanwhile, Chivas USA has formulated its response to Beckham, whose availability to the Galaxy may be in doubt because of a knee injury he suffered Sunday while playing for Real Madrid.

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Let the Galaxy, with its English superstar, go and chase the dream of becoming a global brand. As for Chivas, it will be content -- for now at least -- with wooing and winning the local market. “We’re really focused on being L.A.'s team,” said Javier Leon, Chivas USA’s chief executive.

A recent week provided an excellent example. Chivas USA held free player tryouts in Bell Gardens, attracting more than 2,000 would-be players, the vast majority of them local Latinos. The Galaxy, meanwhile, was training in Bermuda.

There is a firm belief among Chivas USA officials that the Galaxy has dropped the ball when it comes to Southern California’s Latino fans and that miscalculation has opened the door for Chivas.

The Galaxy, whose alumni include such stellar players as Jorge Campos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Eduardo Hurtado, Carlos Hermosillo and Carlos Ruiz, no longer has a single recognized Latino player on its roster.

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By contrast, the current Chivas USA roster shows players of American, Mexican, Honduran, Colombian, English, Puerto Rican and Salvadoran extraction. Demographically, Chivas USA is far more reflective of Los Angeles and will keep drumming home that fact.

“I wouldn’t say they’re losing Los Angeles because of Beckham,” Cue said of the Galaxy. “I think Beckham is a great asset. I think they’re losing Los Angeles because Chivas came here [in 2005] and is doing what people wanted done.

“Now there’s another team providing the passion that the fans like.”

The Galaxy, in its 11th season, averaged 20,814 a game in 2006, when it failed to reach the playoffs. Chivas USA, which reached the playoffs in its second season, averaged 19,840 but the atmosphere at Chivas games was often more vibrant and closer in feel to soccer games in Europe or South and Central America.

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“We’ll continue to be the immigrant team of this nation,” Cue said, arguing that the Chivas vertical red and white stripes are a sign of permanence, whereas when the Galaxy changes its logo and team colors in time for Beckham’s arrival, it will be the fourth such change in a dozen years.

“Our strategy goes back 100 years. It’s about tradition. The uniform doesn’t change. The colors are there forever. We won’t mess with the uniform. There’s not a player in the world who would change our uniform,” Cue said.

Putting a competitive team on the field, having a strong presence in the community, creating passion in the stadium and opportunity for those in and around the club, and honoring the century-long history of Chivas de Guadalajara are Chivas USA’s “core values,” Leon said.

Toward those ends, Chivas has made several moves during the off-season.

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* When Bob Bradley stepped down as coach to take over the U.S. national team, Chivas USA stayed in-house and selected one of Bradley’s assistants, Preki, as coach. Continuity and opportunity were the reasons.

* When the Galaxy raised ticket prices in the wake of Beckham’s signing, Chivas USA kept its prices the same. Now Chivas USA ticket prices, across the board, are roughly half those of the Galaxy.

“I think it would have been not the right thing to our fan base to say, based on someone else doing something, we’re going to be increasing our prices,” Leon said.

* Whereas the Galaxy used the MLS designated-player rule, essentially a route around the salary cap, to land Beckham, Chivas USA traded its designated-player spot to the New York Red Bulls for Honduran midfielder Amado Guevara.

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The driving impulse for Chivas USA in 2007 is to build a team that can defeat the Beckham-powered Galaxy.

“Playing against the best makes you be better,” Cue said. “So I’m excited to have him here. The way we’re going to react is very simple: We have to beat them. That’s it. We’ll talk on the field.”

grahame.jones@latimes.com


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