The Throw-In: Like LA Clippers, Chivas USA have found their inner strength in tough times

Throw-In Chivas huddle

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USA Today

They share a market, the same colors and similar intrigue. And meanwhile, all their respective players are trying to do is play the game.

No, Chivas USA are not in the same situation as the Los Angeles Clippers. Not exactly, anyway. But when you look at it, they’ve got a lot in common.

Besides the geography, both are dealing with controversial owners either out or on their way there. Players on both teams are being asked to do their jobs while a whirlwind of speculation surrounds them away from the court/field. And they’re watching somewhat from afar as their respective leagues are intervening to correct what were previously tough situations.

“I don’t think it’s absurd to make that connection,” allowed Nelson Rodriguez, the former Major League Soccer exec who was appointed as president of Chivas USA after the league assumed control of the club in preseason.

The Clippers are probably not yet through the worst of it. Owner Donald Sterling is not going to let go of the team he has owned for 32 years without a fight, and the legal wrangling will be epic. But it’s safe to say there’s a brighter day ahead for what has traditionally been one of the most moribund franchises in the NBA.

In the meantime, the Clippers players have been the ones who have suffered the most, trying to figure out a way to keep doing their jobs in the middle of a playoff push as the Sterling scandal persists. They’ve responded admirably, staging a unique protest last Sunday and finding a way to bond together and play for themselves and their fans when it would be all too easy to throw in the towel out of anger and frustration.

Chivas USA have already gone through those dark days, and they’re already looking at a brighter future. MLS is trying to identify a new owner to keep the club in the Los Angeles area, most likely in a new stadium.

But in the here and now, 2014 is a bizarre year for the club. It should be celebrating its 10th season. Instead the players are in the middle of what veteran defender Bobby Burling calls “a farewell tour.”

In seven months, the Chivas USA name will be no more. With former owners Jorge Vergara and Angélica Fuentes out, the Chivas brand will return to Guadalajara, and those familiar red-and-white stripes will be retired to the MLS history books as The Club Formerly Known as Chivas USA assumes a new name, brand and colors in 2015.

It’s a weird spot to be in if you’re a Goat trying to play for that crest on your chest every game. But the current players seem to have embraced the potential and already have a new name they’ve been using informally inside the locker room: Team LA.

“We’re just trying to be the team in LA,” goalkeeper Dan Kennedy explained to reporters recently. “There’s a lot that’s going on and there’s going to be some changes in our club and we all want to be a part of that.”

In a lot of ways, it’s an exciting spot for Chivas USA players to be in. For several seasons, the club made news for the wrong reasons, not the least of which was four straight losing campaigns. That has yet to change thus far 2014 – the Rojiblancos haven’t won a game since opening day and are again near the basement of the Western Conference heading into Saturday’s home game vs. Houston – but players will tell you that for once, it has nothing to do with the front office or the headlines they’re reading.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” admits Burling, in his sixth season wearing those red-and-white stripes. “Anytime something changes with ownership, it means someone is willing to step up and get this thing going in the right direction.”

And with that, they’ve latched onto that “Team LA” moniker to give themselves inner strength and to help ignore things that are beyond their control.

It’d be easy to worry about where they’re going to play next season – or if a new owner will chop up the roster and go in a different direction. It’d be easy to think ahead to whether they might have to move their families across an enormous metropolitan area to a new home in, say, Orange County or the Inland Empire.

But that’s above their pay grade. And kind of pointless to worry about.

“There’s a lot of speculation, a lot of whatever with the media, a lot of, ‘Who’s going to own the team next year, where are we going to be?’” said team captain Carlos Bocanegra. “But that doesn’t affect us. And we have a team. We’re working hard. The most important thing’s the result on the field. Nothing on the outside matters.”

That kind of talk is music to the front office’s ears, and stuff that makes it easier for them to do their jobs as temporary owners.

“I would be surprised if players felt the transition was a distraction,” said Rodriguez. “In most instances on the day to day of a club, players have no contact with the owner anyway.

“In our case, we have really strong character and exemplary leadership in the locker room with a lot of experience, and I’d like to believe that the removal of any kind of turmoil has enabled them to settle in and focus on being soccer players.”

In the meantime, what the Rojiblancos can do to keep progressing is to start playing better. Stop making mistakes late in games and allowing soft goals. Stop trying to force too many crosses from the run of play. Stop being overly reliant on the goalscoring prowess of Erick “Cubo” Torres – who, by the way, still has no idea if he’s returning to Guadalajara this summer.

When external factors are beyond your control, you focus on the things you can control. Playing well. Playing together. Playing smart. All those things translate into wins. And winning transcends everything.

The Clippers are still trying to figure that out, facing a do-or-die game against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday in Los Angeles.

For “Team LA,” however, it's still a work in progress.

“I’m excited for whatever the future holds, but that’s out of our hands,” said Burling. “We just have to worry about the on-field stuff.”

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.