Toronto FC success shaped by talent that came through Chivas USA
The matchup in this year's CONCACAF Champions League final is awash in irony.
Toronto FC and C.D. Guadalajara will square off in Tuesday's first leg at BMO Field, and on the surface, there seems to be little that connects the two sides. TFC has been around for just more than 10 years. Chivas has been around for more than 110 and has a long, storied history that includes fielding only Mexican players. But when the relationship is expanded to include Chivas USA, Guadalajara's defunct sister club that played in MLS from 2005 to 2014, the connections are evident.
Defender Eriq Zavaleta spent a year on loan with Chivas USA during the team's final season of existence. Ben Spencer is a product of the Chivas USA academy along with Marky Delgado, who signed a professional contract with the team as a 16-year-old. Current TFC assistant Dan Calichman endured an ill-fated stint as a coach of Chivas USA's U18 team, and current TFC manager Greg Vanney and Toronto assistant Robin Fraser both spent two years running Chivas USA's first team, albeit in reversed roles, with Fraser the head man and Vanney working beneath him.
Both were dismissed by current Chivas owner Jorge Vergara. Now they'll face his club with a continental title on the line.
"In the grand scheme of things, it's a back-of-the-head thing," Vanney said of crossing paths with Chivas, and, by extension, Vergara. "Really, what's important is the soccer aspect and preparing this team. So many of our guys could care less about that history. None of what we're doing will be about any of that. Winning it would clearly be the highest priority and the most important thing. But I'd be lying if I didn't say there would be something a little extra sweet about it."
Fraser added that he and Vanney have "certainly exchanged a word or two about the irony of it."
Just about everyone at TFC with Chivas USA ties has the scars to prove it, and most of those are down to the near-anarchy that surrounded the club. To be clear, during Chivas USA's 10 seasons, the team enjoyed some success when first Bob Bradley (and later Preki) managed the team. From 2006 to 2009, Chivas USA made the playoffs every season.
After that period, the instability was evident. It's what happens when ownership is split 50-50 between two camps, which was the case for all but Chivas USA's final two years. In Los Angeles, there were the Cue brothers, Lorenzo and Antonio. Back in Guadalajara, you had Vergara and his then-wife Angelica Fuentes. It resulted in some considerable thrashing about in terms of what the club's philosophy should be, which trickled from the front office all the way to the field.
"I believe I went into that situation naively thinking that I could do more than I did," said Fraser, who was manager in 2011-12. "I made mistakes along the way, for sure, but it opened my eyes. You recognize that a top-to-bottom philosophy is a much more productive way to go in a professional organization. I think you can have some one-off success if there are differences in philosophy but I think to have sustained success, it's much better and much more likely to occur within an organization that is pretty unified."
Fraser recalled how heading into his first preseason he had an "elaborate plan" for how he was going to revamp the team, at which point reality smacked him in the face.
"We had two people pass the beep test on the very first day, and they were both 16-year-old academy players," he said, referring to a fitness evaluation for prospects. "You go in and you have these plans, and literally after the first training session you go back into the office and the coaches sit around and say, 'Let's scratch everything we just did and now we need to work from the bottom up.'"
Delgado spent three seasons with Chivas USA and played under four managers during that period.
"There was a lot of chaos," he said. Some of it was of the benign variety. One of his managers, Jose Luis Sanchez Sola (known as "Chelis"), had a habit of playing cumbia, a style of Colombian folk music, over a loudspeaker during practice.
"It's nothing slow; it had a good rhythm to it," Delgado said. "It was kind of odd for me being young and seeing that. But then you got used to it. Chelis was a character; he always tried to have positivity within the group. He never liked it when it was too quiet around, so he always had music playing, wherever it would be."
The toughest moment of all for Delgado came when the team folded after the 2014 campaign and the league held a dispersal draft. A conversation with then-New York City FC manager Jason Kreis led Delgado to believe that NYCFC would pick him, but Matt Dunn was selected instead. Thirteen teams passed on Delgado, with seven teams choosing no one at all. Toronto finally selected Delgado at No. 14.
"It was nerve-wracking," Delgado said. "When I saw that Toronto FC picked me up and I saw who the head coach was [Greg Vanney], I knew I was in good hands. I wasn't feeling the best about coming to Toronto, I was definitely not to sure about what to expect in coming here, leaving home, being far away. It was something hard for me."
Calichman's tenure in the Chivas USA academy was the most fraught. He and former Chivas USA academy director Ted Chronopoulos were fired from their posts in early 2013 after complaining about being asked by Chivas USA executives to gather data on the ethnic background of the academy's players. The two filed a racial discrimination suit in 2013, and the case was settled in 2014.
Asked to name the craziest moment from his time at Chivas USA, Vanney paused and said, "There were so many that were death by 1,000 paper cuts."
The organization was so short-staffed that Vanney found himself helping out with administrative tasks just to keep things going, but the wildest spell came in August of 2012. Lorenzo Cue sat both Fraser and Vanney down and said he and his brother were going to execute a clause in the contract to buy out Vergara and Fuentes. Fraser and Vanney were pleased at the prospect. They both had -- and continue to have -- huge respect for Lorenzo Cue, whom they viewed as having a clear, long-term plan for the club. But just before that week's game against the New England Revolution, the two were informed that Vergara had turned the tables and bought out the Cue brothers instead.
"At that point we knew we were at the end of it because with Vergara having taken full ownership, it was going to change directions completely because the vision for the club was a little bit different among the ownership groups," Vanney said.
Fraser said that he met Vergara only once, and spoke to him on the phone one other time.
"We had no relationship," Fraser said. The team failed to win again for the remainder of the season, and, sure enough, both Fraser and Vanney were jettisoned at season's end.
"The fallout from all that is you haven't been successful and how are people going to take this," Vanney said. "For me, it was almost a year of 'How am I going to get back into the league? Am I going to get back into the league? What does that look like?'"
But this Toronto FC team looks like something the Chivas USA alumni barely could have imagined: a treble-winning side being hailed as the best in league history. And just about everyone used the tough lessons from their Chivas USA days as a springboard for later success.
Zavaleta looks back fondly on his Chivas USA experience in part because, heading back to Seattle after his loan was over, he had a "security blanket." Back in 2014, it was still unclear whether his future was as a forward or a center back. But after 17 starts and more than 1,000 minutes at center back -- many of them alongside veteran Carlos Bocanegra -- Zavaleta knew what direction he was headed.
"Bocanegra was a perfect guy to look up to in terms of that position in this league and this country, and the way he leads, the way he plays, the way he's a professional on a daily basis," he said. "It was a lot of learning experiences for me."
Delgado recalled how playing under four head coaches exposed him to how managers can view the game differently; Chelis saw him as a right back while Fraser and Wilmer Cabrera viewed him as a midfielder. The experience also forged a professionalism that has served him well.
"I learned it's not about who's performing best on a given day and then you play at the weekend," he said. "You've got to be good every single day to set foot on the field and perform at the weekend. All these little things I learned there."
Certainly Vanney and Fraser have benefited, as the limited resources forced both to learn things that they might otherwise not have. "While that might not be a recipe for success -- because clearly it wasn't -- from an individual learning standpoint and through some of your failures you learn a lot more," Vanney said.
And what was the biggest takeaway?
"I think even though it was a really difficult situation for Robin as the head coach and myself in support, we learned a lot about how to keep a team together and people all on the same page even, though there was so much swirling around on the outside," Vanney said. "I think you learn a lot about managing people and how to keep a group together even in the toughest of times."
Vanney still feels for Fraser and how everything ended at Chivas USA. As the manager, it was Fraser who took the brunt of the fallout. But now the two, along with Delgado, Spencer, Zavaleta and Calichman, are on the cusp of the greatest club triumph in MLS history.
A victory will ease any lingering pain.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.