Last year I presented the summing up of the evidence we witnessed in 2011, a season in which the Quakes front office was guilty of some dubious roster moves, and my own innocence was crushed early in the season - 2011 was a trial to be sure, with nothing to show after an eight month sentence on the bleachers. After some time off for good behavior, 2012 started well and this season turned into a much more interesting and rewarding journey, with the San Jose Earthquakes capturing the Supporters' Shield. We've all seen some wonderful, unexpected and flat out strange things this season, some of them captured here by Center Line’s Joe Nuxoll and Lyndsay Radnedge. Oh yes, the 2012 season been so much more fun to write about.
After the demolition of the FMC factory on Coleman Avenue in 2011, there hadn't been much change in the bleak landscape next to the Earthquakes training facility. After a five year wait in our temporary lodging at Buck Shaw, the final approval for the construction of the new soccer specific stadium came in February at San Jose City Hall, where the Planning Commission overturned the appeal against construction brought by the residents on the other side of the railroad tracks. The 1906 Ultras turned up in force and were uncharacteristically silent during the proceedings, holding up their scarves as owner Lew Wolff addressed the panel members - it was a very moving sight. Naturally, when the decision was announced after three hours of speeches, the fans all cheered, sang and hugged Quakes president Dave Kaval as we exited the auditorium like champagne bubbles.
On Groundbreaking Day, a shovel wielding mob put their garden implements to good use. Within the outline of the field 6,256 blue commemorative shovels were laid out between two goals, and I found one with my name on it on the edge of the 18-yard box. When the giant wrecking-soccer-ball dropped we collectively released five years of frustration on the dirt beneath, leaving thousands of small craters under the blue and white confetti. After two minutes of digging, with shovels raised in the air, several fans volunteered to stay behind and begin laying the foundations. MLS Commissioner Don Garber turned up in support and dug his way into the Guinness Book of World Record books along side the Quakes fans.
The season ticket allocations for the new stadium are in progress, with the inauguration scheduled for the start of the 2014 season. The fans are looking forward to moving into their soccer-specific stadium with cup holders for the beers purchased in the world's largest outdoor bar, and real seats (with backs) in which to drink them while we watch the game, from either aspect of the two-sided jumbo television screen.
The success of 2012 Earthquakes team has drawn more crowds than ever, and as Coach Yallop puts it: "the players love playing in front of that kind of atmosphere - to say that you weren't entertained here, you'd be lying". The routine sellouts and the success on the field indicate that the franchise is beginning to outgrow its 'small market' label. The crowd at The Buck has grown in size and grown up - there's more involvement, more goals for which to cheer. This didn't go unnoticed by the players - Jason Hernandez enthused "it's been a really, really fun time seeing the evolution of Buck Shaw. To see the crowd evolve, their participation in our games, and the fact that the atmosphere we've created means everyone stays until the final second of every match. Our fans and our organization have done a really good job of making our field a place that people don't want to come play and a place we've had a lot of success. We have one more year there and hopefully we'll make it a memorable one".
The front office's approach to marketing, has also had a lot to do with this - they didn't just break ground for the new stadium, they set the fans a challenge to turn up in sufficient numbers to break a world record. They also ran with an idea that I had originally proposed (as a bad idea) in 2011 - Lenhart wig night on a hot afternoon in August - the runaway success of this promotion clearly demonstrates why I don’t have a lucrative career in marketing.
Up in the bleachers, the fans welcomed in the 2012 season with faint hopes - we didn't know much about the new players, but it quickly became apparent Yallop’s and Doyle’s plans were paying off. After the 2011 ‘Zura debacle’ the front office made some diligent off season moves, parlaying Bobby Convey into an international spot. Major off season acquisitions included Honduran defender Victor "Muma" Bernardez, and speedsters Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez - the three are listed here in order of stature. Rookie Sam Garza was drafted from the UCSB Gauchos - a promising young player who has already seen action with the first team. His style is reminiscent of Darren Huckerby: fearlessly running at defenders with spiked hair and elbows stuck out at right angles. Alan Gordon was finally recovered from injury and pledged allegiance to the Bash Brotherhood with Steven Lenhart, himself absent for 2011. Sam Cronin developed into an astute holding midfielder, working with Simon Dawkins and Rafa Baca in a stacked midfield, that was further bolstered with the mid-season addition of Mehdi Balouchy.
There were departures too: in the 2012 expansion draft we lost Chris Leitch to LA, who immediately retired rather than become a Galaxian - thankfully he was gained right back as director of the Earthquakes Academy, where he brings the same high energy he brought to the field. While there will be no players lost to expansion this off-season, the roster no longer includes Ellis MsLoughlin, Sercan Guvenisik, Jed Zayner (who retired), Ike Opara who was traded to Sporting KC, and I dab my eyes with a non-specific soft-tissue as we wave goodbye to the injury-prone Tim Ward. Ramiro Corrales, the last member of original MLS draftees, perhaps has one more year on the field as he transitions to coaching, though a contract has yet to be signed. Ramiro’s leadership was more evident than ever this year: taking players aside in pre-game warm ups, and encouraging the youngsters in reserve games. It would be fitting to have such an experienced home-grown player (or coach) with the Earthquakes when we move to the new stadium in 2014.
The 2012 Earthquakes squad exhibited a team chemistry as never seen before: the Bash Brothers and Goonies were born, and demonstrated that never-say-die attitude that continued throughout the season, capturing late game points towards the standings. Team photographs show Lenhart and Wondo "keeping each other loose" with various muscle-wrenching, cock-eyed visages before each game. Coach Yallop himself noted a big change in this team's mentality, "if you leave Buck Shaw any time before 95 minutes, you're in trouble...and that's what the fans love". The fans also ramped up their own intensity, contributing to an electric atmosphere in those final Goonie-minutes - Wondo credits the fans in those late comebacks: "it plays a significant role - they [the fans] don't give up behind us, in the 85th minute they're going just as loud, which really is a good driving force behind us".
Where to start, where to start? There were many high points this season with a record number of wins as the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes went 19-6-9, and scored a season record number of goals - their 72 goals cost Wells Fargo $18,000 for the Goals for Education fund. Impressively, 58 of those goals were spread among four players: Wondolowski (27), Gordon (13), Lenhart (10) and Dawkins (8), which bodes well for 2013, especially if Simon Dawkins returns - let's keep reminding him about the California weather, people! The Supporters' Shield was reward for the Earthquakes consistent top-level performance throughout the year, and they were virtually invincible at Fortress Buck Shaw. Even so, the players realize that the fans had high expectations going into the MLS Cup playoffs, and were themselves "bummed" not to go deep into the tournament.
There were plenty of individual plaudits to go around in 2012: Corrales, Wondolowski, Beitashour and Morrow all made the 2012 All-Star squad. The game finished a loss for Chelsea FC, and captain John Terry singled out Wondo as "a nightmare to defend". At the end of the season, the MLS Best XI included two Quakes players: Wondo, and stalwart defender Bernardez. Frank Yallop rightfully earned MLS Coach of the Year, the only coach the Earthquakes have had since they returned to San Jose in 2008. This makes Lew Wolff the 'anti-Abramovich', sticking with Coach Yallop over the same time period that Chelsea have had eight (count 'em) managers: Grant, Scolari, Wilkins, Hiddink, Ancelotti, Villas-Boas, di Matteo, and Benitez (at the time of writing). Naturally Chris Wondolowski was awarded the MLS MVP honor with 27 goals tallied this season. Wondo was still one goal short of tying the record when he was able to present his jersey to Roy Lassiter after the final home game; he tied MLS record (that Lassiter set in 1996) with a penalty kick in Portland one week later.
The biggest win of the season came at the biggest home game of the year at Stanford stadium, where 50,000 fans in the enclosed arena made for an exhilarating atmosphere against arch rivals LA Galaxy. The MLS Game Of The Year was a hard fought 4-3 victory, with the Earthquakes down 3-1 at the half. Pensive looking Quakes players returned to the field for the second half and dug in to come up with three more goals, with the win clinched on a nifty back heel by Wondo. Wondo saluted the troops behind the goal and then kissed the Earthquakes shield on his shirt in salute of the 1906 Ultras. Some of the more unusual events we witnessed in 2012 were Jon Busch finally looking into towards the camera in the team photograph (even if Center Line's photographer Joe Nuxoll had to decamp several yards down the touchline to get the shot), Steven Lenhart and Shea Salinas both donned the Lenhart wigs with Lenny's last minute equalizer on wig night and Alan Gordon checked the view from the Casbah, with a foray into the bleachers after scoring his own late equalizer against Chivas USA.
The low point of this 2012 season was the first loss at Buck Shaw in the final game of the year. Coming into that game the Quakes had a 1-0 lead after the first leg of the MLS Cup playoffs, but the Galaxy were able to capitalize on the early loss of Quakes defender Bernardez with three, rapid first-half goals. The Quakes fought hard, pulling a late goal to give a 3-2 aggregate score, but the traditional last minute magic failed to materialize. The whistle blew, and players from both sides dropped to the ground, their bodies strewn across the muddy battlefield. Even as our dismay hung in the air, the Ultras rallied around the players with as much heart as if they had won victory - with the sudden realization that the Quakes season was over, it definitely took a few days for everyone to recover. As he cleaned out his locker for the year, Wondo's message to the fans for next season is that "we're not just happy with making the playoffs. It's great to win the Supporters' Shield, and it's going to be our goal coming out next year, but you've got to make a deep run. We'll learn from our mistake and hopefully build on it for next year".
All was not lost after the game though - Brian proposed to Eli on the penalty spot in front to the goal at the Ultras end. She said yes, so for them it was a perfect match.
As letters to Santa wended their way to the North Pole, I wondered which team member has been nice enough to be bobblehead of the year in 2013. Nobody hates a bobble head - so I nominate Steven Lenhart, who was recently designated the biggest villain in MLS with the departure of Rafa Marquez. Maybe he comes across as naughty on the field, and he does seem to bring out the worst in the internet trolls. Perhaps there should be a Lenhart Troll promotion (you heard it here first). One thing I noticed this season was Lenny's rapport with David Beckham - check out the animated conversation between the two as they left the field at half-time at the Stanford game in June (top four pictures) - I have no word on the subject of the conversation. It was obviously memorable, since Beckham greeted Lenhart with a smile on their two subsequent meetings (bottom two pictures).
So that was the season that was: a thrilling ride with plenty of success around the whole San Jose Earthquakes organization, and watched the ever increasing numbers of fans who have discovered the joy of a live soccer game. There are plenty of positives to carry over into the 2013 season, with the nucleus of the squad returning with the opportunity to play in the CONCACAF Champion's League. What's your verdict?