The expectations will be high for Chivas in 2021. The expectations are always high for Chivas. In many ways the club brings those expectations upon itself, proudly branding itself as Mexico’s biggest team.
The coming year will be different, though. Chivas are coming off a tumultuous 2020 that saw it cope with a coronavirus outbreak that affected figures from owner Amaury Vergara and both managers it employed during the Guardianes tournament on down to young players. The club also looked to maintain its reputation as an upstanding one off the field, parting ways with a number of players because of indiscipline.
Replacing those players is easier said than done. Chivas has a long, proud history of only fielding Mexican players, meaning the market is much more limited than a team like rival América that can scout South America or Europe for potential reinforcements.
“You have to remember that Chivas always has a bit of a handicap because they only can bring in Mexicans,” said Oswaldo Sanchez, a legendary goalkeeper who once captained Chivas and now works as a commentator for TV Azteca. “So, in this sense, with what they’ve spent I think important players like (Uriel) Antuna, (Cristian) Calderon, (Jesus Ricardo) Angulo, JJ Macias returning home, they’ve been consistent.”
That overhaul, bringing back players either from abroad like Antuna, rising stars from other Mexican teams or recalling talent on loan, was led by sporting director Ricardo Peláez, highly regarded after his work in the front offices of América and Cruz Azul.
“I think it means they have to work harder in the academy to form great players who are high quality and come out of the academy and then they don’t have to pay high prices for them,” Sanchez said. “That’s how Chivas can get better in a lot of ways.”
But while Chivas’ academy is being rebuilt under Marcelo Michel Leaño, with the team winning the most recent U-20 title over crosstown rival Atlas, fans have to have the patience for those players to begin making an impression on the first team. Patience, of course, is not always abundant for fans of a team they expect to win trophies.
“There are so many greats and so many top players who have passed through here and made this club great,” said current winger Isaac Brizuela. “Honestly, I really have fallen in love with it and, yes, I feel a big responsibility but one that at the same time is beautiful because I like having this feeling of, perhaps, not being nervous but a bit anxious to know that you’re being watched by a lot of people, that a lot of people want this opportunity and that speaks to the greatness of the club.”
While a disadvantage in the transfer market, the club’s Mexican identity also plays into that big club label.
“Chivas is a very unique team in the world, for the social and cultural context it has, being the neighbors of the country that’s called the most powerful in the world but it plays only Mexicans and that’s a mirror of our society,” said Ruben Bañuelos, a filmmaker who directed the Chivas: La Película and is currently working with the team on other media projects. “It has a really interesting background, and I can’t imagine another team that has that.”
While Athletic in Spain with its Basque-only policy and Ecuador’s Nacional which also only signs domestic players have similar challenges, Chivas is perhaps the only team in that group expected to win the league on a regular basis.
Despite the off-field issues, Chivas took a step forward in 2020 with Victor Manuel Vucetich guiding his team past América in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion León in the semifinals. Getting a better seed and avoiding the Reclasificación round for teams that finished outside the top four.
Keeping highly-rated forward prospect Macias should help, but he’ll want to score more in the upcoming tournament. With just three goals from open play, the season was a regression from the 21-year-old, but as he goes so goes the Chivas attack which often lacked punch. Even in the playoffs, it was magical individual efforts from Calderón that provided the offense in the postseason (“I said, f*** it, let’s see what happens,” he said after scoring a golazo in the first leg against América.)
With a young team led by a veteran manager, Chivas will hope young players taking a step forward is enough to take yet another step and once again bring joy to the fans who already are hoping for a title win after Matias Almeyda led the team to a league-cup double in 2017 and capped it with a Concacaf Champions League trophy and trip to the Club World Cup in 2018.
It’s a much shorter wait than others the club’s fans suffered through, but Vergara, Pelaez and Vucetich plan to lift a trophy much sooner than the early 2010s when the club was closer to being relegated than winning titles.
“We have a running joke that we win the league every 10 years and are waiting for 2027 now,” said Alvaro Vaquero, host of the English-language Chivas del Norte podcast. “Even now, I guess because we’re doing a little better, it’s fun to poke fun at the dark ages, we call them. It was rough, but if you love Chivas, you’re going to stick around the good and the bad.”
That is the essence of Chivas, a club beloved and well-supported but one that must continue to run itself well on and off the field to meet the expectations its fan base has. With a wise transfer strategy, holding on to some of its young talents and bringing through new young stars with investment in the academy, Chivas’ current leaders hope to give their huge fan base plenty to celebrate in the near future.
This is part three in a three-part series examining the legacy of Chivas and its future as a world-renowned soccer club.