Nelson Rodriguez did not hesitate. The players, coaches and staff of Chivas USA, the embattled franchise that was taken over by Major League Soccer in February, deserved an immediate response from the new man in charge.
So Rodriguez traveled across the country from New York on Feb. 26 to deliver a pair of five-minute speeches. As detailed by Rodriguez, the message was the same in both meetings — first with the team at training camp in Arizona, and the next day with staff in Los Angeles.
Rodriguez faces the challenge of bringing Chivas USA fans back to StubHub Center.
Rodriguez was appointed to the position by the league, which purchased Chivas USA from former owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes after years of missteps resulted in a last-place soccer club and a nearly empty stadium. MLS Commissioner Don Garber needed an experienced hand to stabilize
Rodriguez had resigned from MLS on Jan. 9 after 14 years as an executive with the league in marketing, game operations and competition. He had started his soccer management career in the late 1990s in operations with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and yearned to return to the team environment. He left MLS in search of that kind of opportunity, but he did so without having a job to move directly into. It was a risky decision.
“Neither my family or I are of sufficient wealth that I could afford to take much time off,” said Rodriguez, laughing. “It was not with the intention of sitting on the sidelines a long time and having some sort of Zen moment. It was purely a leap of faith that I might be able to find something.”
His faith was rewarded. When MLS took over Chivas USA, Rodriguez contacted Garber and MLS President/Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott to ask for consideration to run the club. They said yes.
“He has experience at the club and league level,” Abbott said. “When we were thinking about people who could make an immediate impact with the team and behind the scenes, Nelson was a natural. He has a lot of energy and a lot of conviction behind everything he does. He’s very good at supporting the people who work for him.”
With his wife and four young children remaining in New Jersey, Rodriguez moved to Los Angeles.
“I left MLS because I wanted to stretch myself,” he said. “Nothing could stretch me more than moving across the country and taking on these sets of circumstances.”
Those circumstances include: a league-low average attendance of 8,366 fans per game last season — the worst mark in the league by more than 4,000 fans and a 36 percent drop from Chivas USA’s average in 2012; a team that finished last in the Western Conference last season by winning only six of 34 games; and disenchantment from fans and sponsors who grew tired in recent years of the team’s souring fortunes.
In his first 10 weeks on the job, Rodriguez has preached patience and practicality.
“There’s no magic elixir that we can use to change overnight what’s gone on in the past, so we have to simplify things,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve set this challenge to the business staff: ‘Ask yourself, Is what I’m planning to do going to help bring more people to our stadium or enhance the fan experience? If the answers are no, then we’re not doing it.’ My feeling is, we cannot be all things to all people. If we do the right things consistently, we will earn the trust of our fans and earn new fans along the way.”
“The report is very thorough,” Abbott said. “When we asked him to take over the team, we told him that everyone at the league office should be a resource for him. He’s been very good with keeping us up to date. It’s only been two months, but Nelson has brought a real stability to the club.”
Through the club’s first five home matches this season, Chivas USA is averaging 8,719 fans per game. While that is only 32 percent of capacity at StubHub Center, it is an 8 percent increase from last season’s average of 8,045 through five home matches. The biggest crowd this year came on April 6, when more than 15,000 attended a Chivas USA game against the LA Galaxy, the team’s StubHub Center co-tenant. (Chivas USA did not host the Galaxy until June 23 last season, drawing 14,575 for that match).
Chivas USA’s budget for the 2014 season was set jointly by the league office and Rodriguez.
“If we want an expenditure that’s outside the budget, we need to make our case to the league,” Rodriguez said. “I’m satisfied that we have all the necessary resources to make us competitive on and off the field.”
When he wants to make a major deal, Rodriguez is in regular communication with Abbott and other league executives. He has a pair of offers out for a jersey sponsorship deal — he declined to identify the target companies or their categories — but both are for one-year terms.
The team is one of only three playing in MLS this season without a jersey sponsor.
“In our situation, the league office wants to make sure that we are not encumbering a future owner,” Rodriguez said. “That’s just common sense.”
And what about that future owner? Asked if he believed that the 2014 season would be Chivas USA’s only one under league ownership, Rodriguez said, “It is my firm expectation that the club will be sold this calendar year.”
Abbott would not offer a definitive timeline for a new owner, saying, “The league’s intention is not to own the team long-term, but the league is prepared to own the team until we find the right owner.”
As for Rodriguez, whose family will join him in California from their home in New Jersey when school ends in June, he’s looking only at what’s directly in front of him. He has no way of knowing if he will want to work with the new owners, or if they will have any interest in working with him.
“From the beginning, my family and I have considered this an adventure,” he said. “But adventures don’t have predetermined outcomes. I’m very open-minded. In the end, it will come down to whether the new ownership and I both see this as a good fit moving forward. Until then, I’m enjoying it.”