Will Chivas Rise Again?

Fernando Arce, Chivas’s new midfield ace, stood over a free kick Sunday at Mexico’s Estadio Olímpico Universitario, measured up the 30-yard attempt, and fired it past Pumas goalkeeper Alejandro Palacios. The goal handed Chivas a 1–0 win, making it undefeated in its first two Liga MX matches.

Several years ago, that wouldn’t have been news. Now, as supporters of the team forage for nuggets of positivity during this dark period, it’s a big story and reason for optimism. But while Chivas’s first win at Pumas since the 2004 Apertura may be seen by as a forerunner of good results, the club still has long way to go before it transitions out of this bleak era that has seen them go without silverware in the last 15 tournaments.

But can El Rebaño Sagrado, the Sacred Flock as the club is called, return to its glory days? The Guadalajara team’s policy of allowing only Mexicans to join, coupled with recent mismanagement inside the club, and crushing pressure from outside forces makes it unclear whether Chivas will regain its stature not only in the Mexican game but in the Western Hemisphere.

While international scouting is more prevalent than ever, and the rest of the sport experiences unprecedented globalization, Chivas has remained steadfast in its nationalistic policy. Rivals like Club America, Cruz Azul, Leon, and Monterrey bring in Ecuadorians, Argentines, Colombians, Brazilians, even Americans. Chivas’s policy makes the transfer pool it can dip into that more shallow.

This summer’s window typifies what the team is up against. It brought in 34-year-old Arce, another 34-year-old, the former club legend Carlos Salcido, and 29-year-old Ángel Reyna. In theory, its vast number of youth players should provide a solid base for the club’s operations, but the team hasn’t produced a true star since Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Hernandez was sold to Manchester United in 2010, a deal immortalized in a friendly match that opened the Estadio Omnilife. Chicharito scored the first goal in the palatial stadium wearing the colors of Chivas, then switched to Manchester United at halftime of the 3–2 home win.

That has been one of the only fond memories forged in the new stadium. The Omnilife, named for the nutritional supplement enterprise that was started by Chivas owner Jorge Vergara, turned four this week. Losses and draws have been the most frequent results.

Vergara took over ownership in 2002 and was once regarded as a hero who returned “Mexico’s most important” club (per the team’s Twitter bio) to its rightful post by shelling out for the squad that won the title in December of 2006. He is now regarded as more of a suit than a savior. His confidence that fans would come with the club around 13 miles west from former home Estadio Jalisco has proven unfounded.

It isn’t the first time overconfidence has plagued Vergara. He has clashed with numerous team officials, making 14 head coaching changes since Chepo de la Torre was relieved from his duties in September 2007. Vergara ended Dutch legend Johan Cruyff’s three-year contract to be a sport consultant after nine months. The president position is currently vacant after Juan Manuel Herrero resigned seven months into the job, purportedly because of a feud with sporting director Paco Palencia and operating director Rafael Puente.

In 2005, Vergara launched Major League Soccer outfit Chivas USA in Los Angeles using a roster that amounted to a farm team for the parent club. It floundered, on and off the pitch. The on-field product was significantly improved in the second and third seasons, but the fans never came, and soon the team returned to its place among the MLS minnows. The club became a punch line, exacerbated by the fact that it shares a stadium with one of the league’s flagships, the LA Galaxy. Finally, before the 2014 season, MLS stepped in and purchased the team, with plans to flip it to a new owner and start with a clean slate next season.

In its final season Chivas USA has shown some vital signs, running off four consecutive wins earlier this summer before losing two straight. Puzzlingly, the team’s brightest star, young forward Erick “Cubo” Torres remains on loan with the American outfit from the parent club. Torres is exactly the type of player Vergara envisioned coming through the outpost before helping the Guadalajara team. Though he has 10 more goals than Chivas USA’s second-leading scorer this season, the 21-year-old plods on with neither club willing or able to fully commit to him.

Future success may come from these young players, but the globalization of the game influences that, too. Marco Fabian, currently out on loan to Cruz Azul, has the talent to be a star in Liga MX, though that means he has the talent to play in Europe. His agent is currently negotiating a deal that would see Fabian move to the Bundesliga.

There are other names that come up as possible future stars, players like goalkeeper Jose Antonio Rodriguez and forward Carlos Fierro. There is a full squadron of youth teams, and the results have been encouraging from some of the U–15 and U–13 outfits, but the younger ranks haven’t been immune to the management carousel the senior team so often rides. There is no doubt that the club once soared to remarkable heights, with a league-high 11 titles since football become professional in Mexico in 1943. It easily remains one of the most popular clubs in North America, as evidenced by the sell-out crowd that turned up to see a 1-0 loss to Bayern in a friendly Thursday at Red Bull Arena.

Chivas is unlikely to bend from its Mexicans-only policy any time in the near future, but as an already global game continues to blur borders, the club at some point will be faced to decide what it wants more: To be an all-Mexican club or to be a Mexican champion.