Posted by: mdegeorge | May 25, 2011

Hollywood not the only one selling Californication

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. When it comes to American soccer, imitation almost appears inherent. The degree to which the still fledgling league has ranged from borrowing to outright ripping off conventions from the European game is remarkable.

I’m glad F.C. Dallas uses the football club designation to differentiate it from the other sports clubs located under the Dallas umbrella, as is the case in many European cities whose footballing entities have risen to prominence. I’m still not sure just which king deemed Salt Lake’s team the Royal club, as their Madrid forebears were (do the Mormons have a monarchy we don’t know about?)

The latest ideological replica of a successful European notion comes via Chivas USA, whose owner Jorge Vergara announced Tuesday that the team would pursue the compilation of a roster composed solely of Southern Californians.

Justin Braun, one of Chivas' (soon-to-be-former?) non-Southern California contingent. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The strategy echoes that undertaken by Vergara’s other soccer holdings, Chivas de Guadalajara and Club Deportivo Saprissa, which field teams exclusively composed of players of Mexican and Costa Rican heritage, respectively. Both are immensely successful in their respective domestic competitions, apparently to the degree as to make Vergara think such an approach might work in America.

The idea isn’t just Vergara’s conception. Varying degrees of preference over such regional culture are at play in the international football scene. In leagues that straddle formerly distinct cultural regions (think East Germany compared to West Germany or certain Balkan states), regional and sectarian concerns affect personnel decisions. Spain is another such nation. Teams like Barcelona and Espanyol has always showed a preference to players from the Catalonia (Xavi, Victor Valdes, Raul Tamudo, etc.), while Athletic Bilbao almost exclusively fields Basque players.

There’s (at least one) notable difference in these disparate regions, though, which Vergara may be missing in his strength-through-unity philosophy: There are few places in the world less caring than Southern California.

Teams like Bilbao frequently overachieve because of their shared cultural heritage. But that’s because they are able to embrace an us-against-the-world ethos, playing before rabid crowds in a state that openly professes its separatist desire to become a sovereign nation. Being able to hang tough with Real Madrid, truly the king’s club, on the field for 90 minutes a week gives fans hope that their little would-be nation can hang tough on the international stage. There’s a confidence and trust that comes from knowing who the outsider is, and teams like Bilbao use that to their advantage.

It’s not that they benefit from a particularly fertile region where footballers sprout up annually like cornstalks in Kansas (ok, that might be the case a little for Barca). It’s that they bring an intangible that elevates them to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Vergara seems to be looking at Southern California as an area where a lot of people live, many of whom happen to develop into great athletes. SoCal doesn’t have a defining ideology, and if it does, it’s probably not one that lends itself to cohesion and focused intensity on a football field. We’re also not talking about players who come from families who’ve lived and worked and literally died for the glory and safety of the name on the front of their jerseys. Southern California is a land of many types of migrants: From Latin America, from the descendants of farmers in the South, from Northerners driven a short few generations ago toward the hope of a clean slate.

And let’s not expect the hyper-localism to spur a galvanization of the area’s interest in the sport. Chivas already boasts a devoted fan base, but I find it hard to believe droves of people are suddenly going to turn in their skateboards and suntan lotion for Rojiblanco scarves once they realize the starting strike tandem hails from the same county as them.

Logistically, it doesn’t seem a viable option either. Many of the team’s American players are from or based out of California (eight by my count). Several more come out of the vaunted Akron Zips program, a fair ways from the Garden State. Then there’s the matter of half a squad composed of players from such diverse nations as New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, and Ghana. Such an overhaul will cost money, and the targeting of such a narrow range of players will drive up their cost in the open market. It works for Barcelona and Bilbao when they can sign teens to academies; the American soccer landscape is quite a bit different.

It’s also a move away from the globalization MLS is pushing into via league ownership of contracts and designated players in the attempt to lure younger and bigger-named players seemingly every week (not you, Jerzy). Vergara himself is an import, establishing a reputation for adept soccer business with his hometown team in Mexico.

Vergara is right to instill values of local pride and common trust in his players. But the costs of the move could, to invoke a group of Californian iconoclasts, cause a fair amount of scar tissue.

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