NEW: Coaches wondered, 'Hey, will we be fired because I can't speak Spanish and is it possible?'
Chivas USA hired coaches Daniel Calichman and Theothoros Chronopoulos in 2011
They allege Chivas owner Jorge Vergara Madrigal of Mexico has a Latino-only policy
A team spokeswoman declines to comment on the lawsuit
Two former coaches have sued Major League Soccer team Chivas USA, claiming they were fired this year because they are not Latino.
Daniel Calichman and Theothoros Chronopoulos, who worked in the team’s “academy,” or player development, program, accused team owner Jorge Vergara Madrigal of Mexico of enacting a Latino-only employment policy, according to a lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles County court.
Calichman and Chronopoulos, who are both white, also accused Vergara of implementing a discriminatory practice that was carried over from Chivas de Guadalajara, a pro team in Mexico owned by Vergara that allegedly has hired only Mexican soccer players since 1908.
The two men, both former pros and members of the U.S. national team, are seeking unspecified damages for discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination, their attorneys said in a statement Wednesday.
The team fired the two coaches “as part of an ethnocentric policy and practice of discriminating against and terminating non-Mexican and non-Latino employees,” the suit alleged.
In an interview in his attorney’s office, Calichman recalled a team staff meeting last November.
Vergara “asked everyone who speaks Spanish raise your hand, and there was a group that could not speak Spanish,” Calichman said. “The work environment changed, and coaches that could not speak Spanish on the field were wondering, ‘Hey, will we be fired because I can’t speak Spanish and is it possible?’
“It feels horrible,” he said of the alleged discrimination.
The Los Angeles area-based Chivas team, which shares a stadium in Carson with the Los Angeles Galaxy, declined to comment.
“We are not commenting because it’s a legal matter,” said Christina Maillo-Belda, spokeswoman for Chivas USA.
A co-defendant in the civil suit, the human resources firm Insperity Inc. of Kingwood, Texas, also declined comment on Tuesday’s filing.
“Insperity has not yet been served with this lawsuit or even had the opportunity to review it,” said spokeswoman Suzanne Haugen. “However, Insperity does not comment on pending litigation.”
The two former coaches experienced retaliation for opposing the allegedly unlawful employment practices, the lawsuit alleged.
The two men filed complaints with the team’s human resources manager and later with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The team terminated their employment on March 7 and sent a letter accusing the two men of unprofessional conduct that created an unsafe work environment, the lawsuit said.
The two former coaches dispute that accusation by the team.
Chronopoulos was a Chivas USA coach and the director of the team’s academy program, which identifies and develops players age 18 and under for the pro team.
Calichman reported to Chronopoulos and coached 17- and 18-year-old players in the academy program. He also helped the pro team as needed, the lawsuit stated.
Both coaches joined Chivas USA in August 2011.
A year later, Vergara acquired 50% ownership of the team and, with wife Angelica Fuentes, became the team’s sole owner, the suit said. He “undertook a systemic effort to reverse what he perceived as the ‘Americanization’ of Chivas USA and to implement a discriminatory employment practice similar to the ethnocentric ‘Mexican only’ policy that exists at Chivas de Guadalajara,” the lawsuit alleged.
Court documents cited Vergara’s comments to the press, in which he is quoted as saying the plan called for Chivas USA to be “the son of Chivas of Guadalajara” but “it got away from that and the clubs suffered a divorce in philosophy and structure.”
In the suit, the two coaches accused Vergara of “replacing players and staff who had no Mexican or Latino heritage with those who did have Mexican or Latino heritage or who, at a minimum, had some connection to Mexico (for example, being married to a Mexican spouse).”
In December 2012, Chronopoulos was directed by the team president to collect ethnic and national origin data on all academy players and their parents, the lawsuit claims. Many parents were offended and refused to respond, the suit said.
Since Vergara took control of Chivas USA, about seven non-Latino academy employees, including the two former coaches, have been terminated, the lawsuit said. “In contrast, no Latino employees have been terminated,” the suit said.
Also, “the organization has culled virtually all non-Latino players” from the team and “has, almost uniformly, replaced them with Latino players,” the suit said, referring to a Los Angeles Times account on the player changes.
Among those players released or traded are James Riley, Ben Zemanski, Casey Townsend and eight-time Major League Soccer All-Star Shalrie Joseph, the suit said. The team acquired Eric Avila from the Colorado Rapids in exchange for Nick LaBrocca. The team also acquired three players from Chivas de Guadalajara, Edgar “El Chore” Mejia, defender Mario de Luna and forward Giovani Casillas, the suit said.
On Wednesday, Chivas USA was last in the Western Conference with a 3-7-2 record.