Can Guadalajara’s fall from grace get any worse?

Alexis Vega (left) and skipper Víctor Guzmán celebrate in better times. The Chivas are in freefall and the situation is about to get worse. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Alexis Vega (left) and skipper Víctor Guzmán celebrate in better times. The Chivas are in freefall and the situation is about to get worse. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images) /
Puanovic Chivas
Guadalajara coach Veljko Paunovic is seen here on Sept. 16 sporting several stitches above his left eyebrow. Reports this week suggest Chivas captain Víctor Guzmán hauled off and slugged the coach during an argument. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Just over four months ago, the Chivas were in the Liga MX Final, coughing up a 2-goal lead late and losing to Tigres in overtime.

First-year coach Veljko Paunovic was lauded as a savior, guiding Guadalajara to a third-place finish just one season after the 9th-seeded Chivas suffered yet another wildcard knockout.

“El Rebaño Sagrado” opened the Apertura 2023 season with a three-game win streak and sat atop the Liga MX standings heading into the month-long break necessitated by the inaugural Leagues Cup tournament.

Since then, a gobsmacked Chivas Nation has watched their beloved club crash and burn on the field and off. Just when loyal followers figured it couldn’t possibly get any worse, it has been revealed that coach Paunovic will abandon the club after this weekend’s game against cross-town rivals Atlas.

Chivas have fallen down and can’t get up

Guadalajara fans were still grappling with the fallout of the suspensions handed out to star winger Alexis Vega, fullback Cristian Calderón and promising youngster Raúl Martínez when word broke that Paunovic was considering an offer from Spain’s Almería.

Reports circulated that the Serbian manager was set to leave for La Liga and return to Almería (Paunovic played for the Andalucian club in 2008) but would be on the Chivas sidelines for Saturday’s “Clásico Tapatío.”

During the club’s Thursday media session, Paunovic declined to address questions about his future with Guadalajara and the Almería rumors, instead focusing exclusively on the big game against Atlas.

The coach’s pending departure is a far cry from Paunovic’s defiant attitude after the Chivas were crushed by América in last month’s “Super Clásico.” After the 4-0 loss, the manager declared: “Nobody is climbing down off our bandwagon.”

Lots has changed since then and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception the Serb gets from the home crowd on Saturday night.

Everything everywhere all at once

Just before the Sept. 16 clash against América, Paunovic was seen sporting several stitches above his left eyebrow. The injury was attributed alternately to a training ground mishap or an accident during a tennis match.

This week, several reports claim to have sources declaring that the laceration was the result of a dust-up involving Paunovic and Chivas captain Víctor Guzmán. If true, that would go a long way in explaining why “El Pocho” has seen little action in the past five games.

These stories (and denials from Guzmán) came in the wake of the incident that resulted in the suspension of the three players mentioned above.

Since the initial announcement – the decision came directly from the owner’s office – a few additional details have emerged.

Vega, Guadalajara’s highest-paid player, and Calderón reportedly snuck some girls into the team’s hotel in Toluca after Sunday’s 1-1 draw against the Diablos Rojos. Club officials caught the two veterans – and rookie Martínez – in the room with the girls as well as alcohol, both of which are unequivocally prohibited by club regulations.

Since the demotion was announced, Chivas officials have indicated that Martínez might have his punishment rescinded since he was not involved (he was just “present” in the hotel room).

Guadalajara can’t simply cut the offending players (FIFA bylaws prevent that) but it seems likely that Vega and Calderón will be offloaded as soon as possible. There is precedent for that.

Four years ago, the Chivas suspended and demoted four players (Dieter Villalpando, Alexis Peña, José Juan Vázquez and Javier “La Chofis” López) who were found to be at an after-hours party during a team concentration. All four players were sent to other teams after the season (with the Chivas paying the bulk of the salaries, a decision that cost the club roughly 10 million dollars) and owner Amaury Vergara swore none would ever wear a Chivas jersey again.

If Vergara sticks to his guns, we could see Vega and Calderón in different jerseys next season, perhaps stuck with paying a significant portion of the wage packet if other Liga MX teams refuse to bargain. That could be a costly proposition as Vega has a contract through December 2024 and Calderón still has another season on his deal.

What’s next for the Goats?

If all the reporting is true – and no denial has been issued by Paunovic or Chivas management – “El Rebaño Sagrado” is looking for a new coach as you read this.

Thus far, the most plausible candidate of the several names that have been bandied about is José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre.

“Chepo” played eight years with Guadalajara, winning one title (1986-87), and spent parts of seven seasons as manager of the club. The former El Tri coach led the Goats to the Apertura 2006 title and later guided Toluca to a pair of Liga MX championships.

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Though De la Torre certainly has the credentials and the pedigree, he has not managed a club since being fired by Toluca in September 2020.