Chivas' issues make for daunting Apertura, raise long-term questions

Alan Pulido reacts during Chivas' CONCACAF Champions League match against the New York Red Bulls. Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images

Chivas kick off the 2018 Apertura in very different shape than fans would've hoped for and expected 14 months ago, when the Guadalajara club hoisted title No. 12 to make it a league and cup double in the 2017 Clausura.

The championship was supposed to herald a brighter future for the side, closing the book on relegation problems and providing evidence that an all-Mexican squad could compete for titles in an increasingly foreigner-dominated Liga MX.

"It means the end and the beginning," Chivas owner Jorge Vergara told ESPN FC after his team defeated Tigres in the final in May 2017. "The end of a lot of problems in the last two years and the beginning of a new chapter for the team.

"Next we want to win the [CONCACAF Champions League] and then the [Club] World Cup."

Vergara was right about the CONCACAF Champions League, with Chivas overcoming Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC on their way to glory this past April.

But that CCL win, with the benefit of hindsight, appears to have been a smokescreen hiding a deep and disturbing malaise at Chivas. This summer the club has unraveled in quite spectacular fashion, and the prospects of Chivas challenging for the Liga MX title this Apertura and representing CONCACAF with a historic performance at the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in December appear unlikely.

For a start, manager Matias Almeyda left the club in June. The Argentine had been an inspirational figure for the players and fans, and it was unfathomable to many that he had been allowed to leave, especially with the former River Plate midfielder still living in Guadalajara.

But signs of trouble had come long before. Players had protested unpaid bonuses during the run to the CCL final. Sporting director Francisco Gabriel de Anda had come in back in March seemingly against Almeyda's wishes. Ironically, Gabriel de Anda resigned along with Almeyda, but not before he had made it very clear that the club was undergoing "financial consolidation" and wouldn't be making expensive signings, instead looking to the youth team to promote players.

Add into the mix the fact that owner Vergara has been largely absent of late -- reportedly because of illness -- and the divisive influence of CEO Jose Luis Higuera, and Chivas have hardly been an oasis of tranquility this summer.

Almeyda's replacement, Jose Cardozo, came into the job after short stints at minnows Chiapas, Puebla and Veracruz. Although the Paraguayan is a huge name in Mexico after his goal-scoring exploits with Toluca, he is yet to really set himself apart as a manager.

To be fair to Cardozo, the job at Chivas would be tough for anyone. The quality of the squad has been diminished since the title victory, while the memory of reaching seven finals since Almeyda's arrival in September 2015 is still fresh, which will likely fuel unrealistic expectations.

The sale of Rodolfo Pizarro to Monterrey last month resulted in protests, and it isn't difficult to see why; the 24-year-old is arguably the best Mexican in Liga MX, and it's almost inconceivable that Chivas would've won the CCL without him. Add to that the loss of outstanding goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota, who was loaned to Leon from parent club Pachuca, and Oswaldo Alanis to Getafe, and Chivas have been weakened. But even before last season, Jose Juan Vazquez leaving for Santos Laguna -- the eventual Clausura champion -- should've set alarm bells ringing.

The squad Chivas have now is midtable at best in Liga MX terms. Returning goalkeeper Raul Gudino, Josecarlos Van Rankin and Angel Sepulveda are the new faces, but it's the old guard, including Alan Pulido, Isaac Brizuela, Orbelin Pineda and Jair Pereira, that will need to be absolutely on top form for the Guadalajara club to rescue anything from this season.

The bottom line is that Chivas are strapped for cash, with a missing owner, an underwhelming new coach and a squad that is weaker than the one that lifted the team to that 12th title just over a year ago.

The question in the short term is whether Chivas can upset the odds this Apertura. But over the longer term, the direction the club is going is concerning for both Chivas fans in particular and Mexican football as a whole.