If this were Europe, the fans would be thrilled.
Three straight losing seasons and a dwindling fan base is unacceptable for any sporting team, but Chivas USA has responded in a way that would make almost any soccer fan excited. They found free transfers for overpaid, underperforming players, dispensing with almost all of their salary obligations for their departures. They reloaded with young, inexpensive talent with genuine community ties (all four off-season acquisitions, minus the Guadalajara loans, were born in Southern California). They found a promising rookie in Carlos Alvarez who was excited to join the team, and they pulled out all stops to acquire him. In almost any league in the world, Chivas USA has followed the script for a rebuilding franchise.
Major League Soccer, however, is structurally much more similar to its American brethren than to other soccer leagues. In American sports, teams keep their draft strategy tightly guarded, trying to extract maximum value from each pick. Trading is done to acquire superior assets, not just to purge the club. Cultural and community connections are of little importance in constructing a winning roster. According to received wisdom, Chivas USA has done everything spectacularly wrong this off-season, violating the norms so flagrantly that the very existence of the team should be called into question.
However, it's worth seriously considering if this has to be the blueprint for a successful MLS franchise. Though MLS may structure itself as an American league, soccer is still an international sport, and this opens a bevy of channels for team building that simply aren't available in other leagues. If an NFL franchise wants to add talent, their only options are to go through the draft or to find players from other teams in the league, through trades or free agency. However, the percentage of theoretically available soccer players who actually play in MLS is quite small, and the potential talent that comes through the draft is even smaller. Rather than playing by the same rules as 18 other teams, Chivas USA could be best served by pursuing an alternate model.
When people talk about Chivas's re-engagement with Latino culture, they tend to think of it as limiting; by concentrating on Latino players, Chivas is decreasing its potential talent pool. However, it's very easy to see how this model could be expansive. By conducting team business in Spanish and adopting a style of play familiar in Central American leagues, Chivas USA could become a welcome home for players throughout South and Central America who would consider playing in the United States were it not for the linguistic and cultural barriers.
Take Walter Vilchez, for example, who is widely expected to sign with the team in the next week. Vilchez has enjoyed a stellar playing career in Peru. He's earned 64 appearances for a national team in the brutal COMNEBOL conference, and managed to win a bronze medal in the 2011 Copa America. He's earned spots on four sides that have won Peruvian first division titles -- and although he is 30 years old, the most recent championship came in 2012. Chelis refers to him as integral to his plans, and his sporting accomplishments suggest a very talented team player. However, his potential signing is drawing very little attention, largely because players like Vilchez are miles away from the MLS radar. It's no exaggeration to say that South and Central America could be filled with dozens of potential Walter Vilchez's, and Chivas USA could be positioning themselves as their leading destination.
Of course, this can only happen if Chivas USA is willing to spend the money necessary to scout and sign these players. Jorge Vergara is no profligate spender, and this has been an off-season dedicated to slashing playroll. At this point, that's a necessary task, but Vergara will have to open up the checkbook soon if he wants to realize what could be a unique potential. Otherwise, Chivas's ceiling will remain a series of mediocre finishes, and the MLS community will continue to blame a fresh and exciting approach to team building when the real culprit will be negligent mismanagement.