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From Blackburn to Buck Shaw

(As the summer transfer window is about to close, we welcome the addition of Nerdy Gales to the roster here at CLS. We're hoping this is the mid-season acquisition we need to push us over the top and into a playoff position. Nerdy hangs out on Twitter @NerdyGales. — Editor.)

Here I am, late as a Paul Scholes tackle, more than half way through the 2011 MLS season with my first post on Center Line Soccer:  the story of my gradual conversion to a diehard Quakes fan, written from my seat cushion perched on the aluminum bleachers beneath the press box at Buck Shaw Stadium.

My formative years as a football fan started on the terraces of the Riverside stand at Ewood Park, holding a hot meat pie in one hand and a steaming cup of tea in the other. This was back when Blackburn Rovers were playing well enough to get promoted from the English Third Division to the Second, and is farther back than I care to remember.  Now I enjoy games in the temperate San Francisco Bay Area, and I especially appreciate that I no longer have to wear two pairs of gloves and three pairs of socks to survive a match without frostbite.

I will freely admit that after I moved here from the UK I squandered a full decade of football fandom when my head was turned by the novelty of baseball and its esoteric statistics.  It was an era when coverage of soccer in the US was meager and the flow of the televised game was interrupted by ads (yes, really).  Gradually broadcasts improved, and by 2002 ESPN covered the entire World Cup with matches screened live in the middle of the night.  The England and USA teams had good runs deep into the tournament and Americans watched in unheard of numbers for their team’s unexpected defeat of Mexico.  I might even argue that match was pivotal in turning this country toward soccer, and my own interest in football was re-ignited.  I wondered where I could go to watch a match, and so began my own conversion to MLS by the San Jose Earthquakes.

Fifteen years ago, the San Jose Clash (who reverted to their original NASL name Earthquakes in 1999) defeated DC United 1-0 in the inaugural MLS game at the appropriately named Spartan Stadium.  The next decade was a great time to be a Quakes fan as the team won the MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003.  Any remaining Eurosnob in me was snuffed out at the famous 2003 quarterfinal comeback against LA – a 5-4 golden goal victory to overcome a four goal deficit, a game that eclipsed an FA Cup Final as my ‘best match ever.'

However, just a few weeks after winning the 2005 Supporters’ Shield, and to the fans’ despair, it was announced that the team was moving to Houston.  The team maintained that without a soccer-specific stadium, they would not be financially viable — “If you don’t build it we will go” — and so they went.  The Dynamo went on to win the 2006 and 2007 MLS Cups with a team essentially built of the same players we had all watched in San Jose.  I’ve always felt cheated as a fan that we couldn’t witness their success in person.

The only thing San Jose had left was the Earthquakes name and, after a seemingly interminable three years, MLS returned a new team to the city in 2008.  The prospects of MLS were improving: Beckham had just arrived and the league was expanding, and for the Quakes fan there was the promise of a new stadium within a couple of years – in the meantime they would play in Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium.  Everyone was optimistic until the recession hit, and funding dried up.  Here we are half way through the fourth season of Quakes 2.0, and the fans are still waiting for our soccer-specific stadium to be built – it’s déjà vu all over again.

If my previous life as a fan in Spartan Stadium was, well, Spartan, then my current life at Buck Shaw is very Spartan.  While the stadium is austere, with cramped aluminum bleachers, the up-side is that you can’t help but quickly make friends with ten thousand fellow fans.  Many fans have been supporting the team for years, even since the old NASL days, when my own childhood heroes George Best and Colin Bell were playing here.   Some Quakes fans are willing to travel far and wide for their love of the game - one fan is still ruing his decision to bring the vuvuzela he brought back from the World Cup in South Africa to a Quakes game.  Said noise-maker was confiscated and he never got it back (we tried our best to appear to share his disappointment).

There you have it – the San Jose Earthquakes have as much history as an MLS team can have.  While I find that the average American sports fans knows little about soccer, the average American soccer fan is very well informed about the beautiful game all over the world. Our regular Saturday evening Quakes game comes after the morning EPL games and East Coast MLS games in the afternoon - you can hear plenty of chatter about the day’s games on your way into the stadium.  In that respect I don’t believe that going to a Quakes game is that much different from any game you would attend in England, Brazil or Japan.  There are more similarities than differences, but I still do miss that British football tradition of hot pies at half time.