This star-filled day on Sunset Boulevard glimmered with expectation and promise, but it unfolded only after a period of reflection and truthful deliberation for a league in the midst of squandering the opportunity available in Los Angeles.
MLS paved the way for Los Angeles FC by shepherding Chivas USA out of existence. The move constituted an humbling admission of the errors made over the course of a decade and a stark assessment of the grim reality ahead. The execution arrived after a series of embarrassments and missteps grand enough to force the league to triage the situation, purchase and operate the team this year and then send it into the history books to join Miami and Tampa Bay.
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“We thought it was a great idea,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “It was a bad idea. I don’t know if anybody could have executed it well. Being a young business, you have to take a step back and look at the decisions you’ve made. You have to take a deep breath, have courage about it no matter what people say and how people view your decisions, and perform surgery so that you can save the patient.”
The corpse of one club created the vacancy for another to emerge. The neglected framework crumbled away on Monday and took those distinctive and limiting traditions with it. There were no attempts to save the structure in place. This new dawn required the flexibility created by two years’ lead time and the freedom to operate without the troublesome encumbrances of the past, according to the parties involved.
We really needed a distinct break. We needed to accept what we did in 2005 did not work. The new team shouldn’t be saddled and burdened with that legacy. The league should.
MLS commissioner Don Garber on why LAFC did not purchase and rebrand Chivas USA.
“Put it this way: I’ve been a part of so many new organizations and startups, I’m an adrenaline junkie for that,” LAFC owner and managing partner Henry Nguyen. “Being able to really plot the course from the beginning and not revise some past, it’s a huge difference.”
The guiding principles, the names on the dotted line and the evident desire to rely on some star power are about all that exists at the moment. The name isn’t even necessarily in its final form yet. The group itself, its vast resources in financial, political and social capital and the hope it carries for the future serves as the foundation for the hard work to ahead.
Most of the initial push will focus on producing a workable stadium solution for the inaugural season in 2017. LAFC has committed at least $150 million in private funds to build an expected 25,000-seat (or so) ground in the greater Los Angeles area, LAFC president Tom Penn said. The partners will need to allot every possible dime and use every last one of their connections to find a proper site – Penn said they had looked anywhere from 15-acre to 100-acre parcels to encompass stadium-only plans and wider development possibilities – and secure it quickly enough to avoid playing at a temporary facility.
Even then, the admittedly aggressive timeline might extend into 2018 and beyond. The travails of several other MLS sides in their markets and the currently futile efforts to build a stadium to house an NFL team in Los Angeles underscore the difficulty of constructing a venue. There are alternatives available on a short-term basis (ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman reported the group might play in the L.A. Coliseum if the stadium is not ready in time), but the goal is to sidestep that part of the process and open the doors in a facility tailored to their needs in greater Los Angeles.
“That’s what we want to build,” Nguyen said. “Look, we know it’s not going to be easy. We know there are going to be a lot of challenges and roadblocks along the way. We’re ready to face the challenges. With the ownership group we have and the collective experience that we have even in this specific type of work, I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to meet those challenges.”
As LAFC pursues a stadium, it must also cobble together personnel and cultivate a technical staff. The emphasis on engaging with fans and promoting an inclusive culture requires the right touch in this department to ensure a cohesive message. There is also a pressing need to address youth development programs quickly given the battle for promising prospects in southern California and the possibility of losing the good work done by the Chivas USA academy setup.
Most of all, LAFC needs people with the requisite MLS experience to shepherd them through the process of building a team and situating the club as a counterpoint, not a secondary option, to the Galaxy. This is not a market willing to accept a few lean years for the greater good. This is a team that must provide some substance to match the sizzle sooner rather than later to use its preparation time well.
“We will sequence in soccer folks,” Penn said. “I’m not a soccer guy, yet. I’m becoming a soccer guy. In my 15-plus years in the NBA, I’ve seen so many mistakes made where folks who are not inherently familiar with the ethos of the sport are making poor decisions about who makes those decisions. We won’t make (that) mistake.”
There are several more mistakes to avoid over the next few years as LAFC fleshes out the buzz and the energy from its inaugural day. Nguyen said he and his partners have learned from the successes in Portland, Seattle and other markets and studied the tribulations of Chivas USA. They must tread carefully to plot the right course in a discerning market, sidestep the perilous obstacles ahead and vindicate the league’s continued faith in a second LA team at the expense of other interested expansion markets.
Chivas USA is not one of the hurdles along the way. There will be reminders of the previous team in LA, but they are not LAFC’s burden to bear. Those memories will inform some of the decisions and they will live in the Red-and-White supporters who might follow LAFC, but they do not constitute part of the fabric of a project with no real substance yet. This is, as Nguyen contended, “a brand new, bright and shiny club.”
The decision to usher Chivas USA off the stage offers the chance for LAFC to unwrap the packaging. It is a decision MLS and the Board of Governors took to provide LAFC with the best possible chance where the Red-and-White failed.
“No commissioner wants that as part of their book, but I have accepted that I need to make those decisions because it’s the right thing for the league,” Garber said. “We wanted to give them a fresh start. If you look at the ownership group and their plan, that fresh start will give them the best opportunity for success.”
It is a glitzy platform, at the very least. Now it is up to LAFC to construct firmly upon it to justify the course taken to reach this point and steer the club toward the shining lights ahead in the distance.