- Jeff Carlisle, Soccer
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In a former life, Jose Luis Sanchez Sola probably sold snake oil. Or big city bridges. Or beachfront property in the Mojave. How else does one explain his insistence that the Chivas USA team he has constructed over the last two months will be a competitive MLS side?
The current incarnation of the Goats has been cobbled together with spare parts from parent club C.D. Guadalajara as well as holdovers from last year's squad that finished with the second-worst record in the league. All of which creates a haunting sense of deja vu for the club's fans as it's the same approach to roster building the Goats used during its expansion season back in 2005 -- when the team finished dead last.
Yet when Sanchez Sola (better known as Chelis) is asked what the difference is between his team and the 2005 version, his response is simple. "In 2005, the owners have this idea, but don't give it to Chelis," he said via telephone. "Now they have the Mexican players, the American Latino players and Chelis."
But before you dismiss his assessment as bravado and nothing more, it pays to look at Chelis' track record, a man who never reached the professional ranks as a player but as a manager has made a habit of convincing modest players that they're capable of great things. He began accumulating his coaching certification in 1995, eventually parlaying it into a job managing the youth side of his hometown club, Puebla FC. He took over the first team in 2006, won promotion to what was then known as the Primera Division in 2007 and took the team to the semifinals in the 2009 Clausura.
Along the way, he was fired and brought back twice at the players' insistence.
"Chelis is unlike any coach I've ever had, that's for sure," said current U.S. international Herculez Gomez, who played for Chelis at Puebla in 2010. "He's one of those guys that when you first meet him, you don't really know if he's serious or not. He's extremely charismatic, sometimes overly emotional, hot tempered. But he's one of those guys who finds something that he can use to get to you emotionally to have you kind of work for him, and he uses it. Down the years, he's had a lot of success with very little."
Gomez is a prime example. Cast aside by MLS, the California native led the Mexico top flight in scoring with 10 goals in 15 matches during the 2010 Clausura. That willingness to take a chance on other clubs' castoffs has bred intense loyalty from Chelis' players, although sometimes the manager's support manifested itself in bizarre ways. Gomez recalled how while at Puebla, the players hadn't been paid for two months and were considering going on strike. Chelis had no sooner convinced his charges to train that day when the club's owners arrived asking to meet with the players.
Gomez said, "Chelis, he's smoking a cigarette, sitting on a soccer ball, and you could see him shaking his head, and before the owners could say one word he says, 'Ugh! Just go away, all of you [owners], just go away. Do me a favor and don’t talk to my players today!' I'm sitting there just in awe that he's talking to them like that. And they're sitting there like, 'What do you mean? These are our players.'"
"It might have been disrespectful to the owners, but it showed everybody on the team that he was there for us."
Chelis also forged a reputation for playing attacking soccer, one that he intends to continue with Chivas USA through the use of high pressure and superior numbers in midfield.
"The people that pay for tickets like goals, they want a show," said Chelis. "Maybe my team makes goals, and maybe my team gives up goals. Maybe my team will lose, maybe they will win. But the people like a show; 0-0 is not a show. This is my music to the players and the players like it."
Well, at least those fortunate enough to stick around as the Goats' roster purge in recent weeks has bordered on a fire sale. Veteran defender James Riley was shipped to D.C. United for a second round pick in the 2015 Supplemental Draft. Former All-Star midfielder Shalrie Joseph was practically gift-wrapped and sent to Seattle along with two draft picks and a swap in the allocation order just so Chivas wouldn't have to pay all of his salary.
Given the stated aim of owner Jorge Vergara to implement a more Latin style with Latino players, the impression has been that Chivas is simply ridding itself of players who don't fit that demographic. To be fair, Latino players like Juan Pablo Angel and Alejandro Moreno have also been let go while the likes of goalkeeper Dan Kennedy and defender Bobby Burling still remain.
But a more pointed criticism is that the new Chivas hierarchy hasn't grasped the concept of extracting value from other clubs when it engages in player transactions. When asked if this was the case, Chelis said "Maybe." But he then insisted that simple economics have driven the vast majority of the player moves.
"The real result is when the games begin," he said. "This team now doesn't have money, and the project is empty because the players that went were very expensive. The group we have, I think we have a good team and good talent."
Following Wednesday's training session, Kennedy remarked how he had been impressed with how quickly the team had bought into Chelis' methods, especially considering the amount of turnover.
But Kennedy knows that a charismatic manager and hard work from players will only carry the team so far, even with talented attackers like Miller Bolannos and Juan Agudelo. Overall there just doesn’t seem to be enough quality. Chelis remarked that the club is aiming to bring both Gabriel and Michael Farfan in from Philadelphia, although it seems inconceivable that the Union would let either player go. Otherwise, the Chivas manager said that his roster will be comprised of the 28 players currently in training camp. Add it all up, and even Gomez -- as big a Chelis proponent as there is -- remains unsure as to whether his former boss will succeed.
"MLS is such a different animal," Gomez said. "I don't think people realize how competitive it is, and how different it is, where they have their own internal rules, and the draft, and the different player movements. If you don't understand that I think MLS will be very difficult."
Meanwhile, Chelis continues to sell the idea of a team on the rise. "In October, call me please and tell me the talent of this team."
That implies Chelis will still be around. If that’s the case, that will bode well for both manager and club.