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Column: Remembering the last, dark days of Chivas USA

As a lifelong New York Mets fan, Nelson Rodriguez has long known the story of Omar Minaya, the team’s former general manager.

Minaya’s first chance at running a team had come with the Montreal Expos after the franchise was taken over by Major League Baseball. Minaya’s job was to put the team down as gently and painlessly as possible while the league searched for new owners and a new home for the franchise.

Rodriguez inherited a similar role in the winter of 2014, when Major League Soccer put him in charge of Chivas USA less than a week after the league had taken over the team. The difference between the two scenarios was that while everyone knew the Expos’ days in Montreal were numbered, MLS said little about its plans for Chivas.

Even Rodriguez wasn’t fully aware of what his job was and that made it all the more difficult.

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“The rumors start swirling that you’re actually on Death Row and you’re about to be euthanized,” Rodriguez said from behind the desk of his neat office at Toyota Park, where he serves as president and general manager of the Chicago Fire. “Every day it was a revolving door of people coming into the office saying, ‘Come on, tell me the truth. Are we going away? Can you help me get a job?’ That was a challenge.”

Chivas USA midfielder Martin Rivero, right, battles Real Salt Lake midfielder Cole Grossman for possession of the ball during a game at StubHub Center on June 28, 2014.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press )

But it was one Rodriguez handled with decency and class, paving the way for the league to fold the team and allow the Los Angeles Football Club to join MLS in its place.

“It could have been a more difficult separation. And it wasn’t,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “I’m thankful for that. Because that set the stage for my first conversations that ultimately led to this incredible [LAFC] ownership group.”

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Many in LAFC’s front office push back on that link insisting, correctly, that theirs is an expansion franchise, one with no connection to the dysfunctional Chivas USA.

“We got nothing from Chivas,” President Tom Penn said. “Not even soccer balls.”

But LAFC did assume the team’s spot as Southern California’s second MLS franchise after the Galaxy. And if Chivas had burned the bridges behind it on its way to dissolution, the efforts of both LAFC and the league to bring another team to town could have faced both fan and political opposition.

Rodriguez made sure that didn’t happen. As a result, many former Chivas supporters have lined up with LAFC while Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City Council and County Board of Supervisors united behind construction of a soccer-specific stadium in Exposition Park, a project that was finished ahead of schedule and on budget.

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On Sunday, LAFC will play its inaugural game in Banc of California Stadium, the first open professional sports venue built in the city of Los Angeles since Dodger Stadium in 1962. Yet Rodriguez isn’t sure he’ll be watching.

“They deserve all the credit,” he said of LAFC’s sprawling ownership group, headed by Penn and Hollywood mogul Peter Guber. “They’ve set out on a world-class mission. They’ve backed that with their investment, so it’s not just intent but it’s action. Every piece they’ve added shares the way they want to see that narrative written and consumed.”

Others, however, insist that narrative remains heavily influenced by Chivas USA. Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, who set records for most games and most minutes played for the failed franchise, says strong ties still exist in the coaching staff and the fan base.

Chivas USA's Danny Califf (23) embraces teammate Nick LaBrocca (10) after he scores in the second half against the Portland Timbers in Portland, Ore., on July 28, 2012.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press )
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“The story that is being told at LAFC right now is aligning closely with Chivas,” he said. “Think about who they hired as their first coach, Bob Bradley. Bob’s work at Chivas was tremendous.”

In his only season with Chivas, Bradley led the franchise to its first winning season and first playoff berth before leaving to take over the U.S. national team.

The fans, Kennedy continued, “were stand-up people… through some of the most challenging times a fan can face.” With LAFC those holdovers, from supporter groups such as the Black Army 1850 and the Union Ultras, found the club reaching out to them.

“I see a refreshed pop-up of the support and the momentum that they never had at Chivas,” said Kennedy, who now works in the Galaxy front office. “There’s something rewarding about that just because I truly know what they’ve been through.”

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As for what the players went through that final season, Kennedy said the worst part was not knowing.

“It was evident that change was coming,” he said. “We all tried, collectively, to act as if we had plenty to play for. None of us knew how it was going to shake out.

“It was just about trying to put the right foot forward. You’re only as good as your last game.”

Chivas USA’s last game was a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes, one played before an announced crowd of 5,571. But there were far fewer actually on hand at StubHub Center to see Kennedy post his sixth shutout of the year, ending the team’s fifth straight losing season.

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The next morning Rodriguez gathered everyone in a conference room to tell them the team was being disbanded. Despite the whispers, the news was a shock.

“We were moving forward until the final day with preparation as if there was next year,” remembered Cristina Maillo Belda, the team’s last director of communications.

Still, she responded by leaving the room to call reporters and schedule interviews with players and staff. She then stayed on the job — a job that no longer existed — for another two months archiving press materials.

“Kudos to Nelson for that,” said Maillo Belda, now a public relations manager for Adidas. “He was the most outstanding leader I worked for. That was the reason why, even after we knew there was no team, the right thing to do was keeping going and making sure that we put it to rest in a decent way.”

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For that, LAFC owes Rodriguez some kudos as well.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11


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