With the release of the complete 2016 MLS regular season schedule, San Jose Earthquakes supporters have been quick to mark their calendars so as not to miss a single one of the 34 games on offer. And in that collection on contests are a handful that really stand out as must-watch matches. In no particular order, these are the five games on the schedule to plan everything else around.
1. San Jose vs. D.C. United, April 2, Avaya Stadium: Nearly 20 years ago to the day, Major League Soccer got its start when the San Jose Clash hosted D.C. United at Spartan Stadium on April 6, 1996. A nationally televised game that was more curiosity than appointment TV, the match seemed headed to a scoreless draw -- not the start MLS was dreaming of -- when Clash forward Eric Wynalda flashed some individual brilliance and laced home what would be the game's only goal. D.C. United would shake off the 1-0 loss and eventually capture MLS Cup six months later, but the league's inaugural match will indelibly be a part of San Jose soccer history.
Now, as MLS embarks on its 21st season, the league is as strong as ever, a prominent feature on the American sporting landscape. The Clash are now the Earthquakes, and D.C. United begins 2016 with a new badge (and plans for a stadium!), but the match-up brings together two familiar foes. And one other thing: If the Earthquakes don't have Wynalda on scene to lead the teams onto the field, preside over the pregame coin toss -- at the very least to serve drinks at the LOBINA -- then something will truly be missing from this sure to be celebrated game.
2. The annual California Clasico at Stanford Stadium, June 25: Not one San Jose supporter gets tired of the annual trek to Stanford to watch the Quakes take on the LA Galaxy in the unofficial kick-off to the Summer of Soccer in the Bay Area. That the club puts on one of the best fireworks shows anyway as part of the festivities is only the kicker. The main event on the field is what really gets the blood boiling. Whether it's Alan Gordon exciting the crowd with his stunning stoppage time winner in 2013, or mascot Q getting the once-over from David Beckham a year earlier, never do the over 50,000 that come to annual event go home not entertained.
For 2016, the Stanford-held Clasico comes on the eve of the Copa América Centenario final, played June 26 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, but neither team should be missing any of its impact players. Quakes vs. Galaxy on Saturday and Brazil vs. Argentina on Sunday sets up for a mouthwatering weekend of rivalry soccer!
3. Earthquakes host Sounders, Avaya Stadium, September 10: With all apologies to the other two Cascadia teams, including the defending MLS champion Portland Timbers, it is the Seattle Sounders that Quakes fans love to hate. The San Jose Ultras always represent well in their annual road trip to CenturyLink Field, and the Emerald City Supporters always return the favor when Seattle travels south -- this year's match at Avaya Stadium comes at a critical point in the season when playoff runs are in full swing.
Adding spice to the affair is the return of Simon Dawkins to San Jose for the 2016 season. Who can forgot what was probably the best goal of his two years with the club, this screamer into the upper corner that silenced a boisterous Seattle home crowd back in 2012. Now, back in the fold and blessed with a Designated Player contract, Dawkins will be looking to tame the Sounders once again and lead the Quakes past their favorite Pacific Northwest nemesis.
4. TFC vs. Quakes features familiar faces, July 16: Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco -- the headliners on Toronto FC's stacked roster already make this a must-see match at Avaya Stadium. But beyond the stars there is an intriguing potential clash between some familiar faces -- ones that in 2012 were drinking champagne together as they celebrated winning the Supporters' Shield for San Jose.
Chris Wondolowski and Dawkins -- the two leading offensive players on the Quakes' Never Say Die 2012 squad -- will be matched up against former teammates and defensive stalwarts Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour in the red of TFC. It will be a bit like getting the band back together again, though a reunion that will not have all parties singing the same tune. Maybe Steven Lenhart will travel over the hill from Santa Cruz to take in the match. And what of Alan Gordon? Has he found a team yet? Perhaps, if neither is busy that evening, the Bash Brothers could reunite and call the game for television. Yes, please!
5. MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium, TBD (likely the week of July 25): Okay, so this technically is not an Earthquakes game, but it will be hosted by the club at Avaya Stadium, and head coach Dominic Kinnear will be in charge of the MLS squad. While it is not known the format of this summer's MLS All-Star Game -- speculation is that the league may return to a Western Conference vs. Eastern Conference format -- Avaya Stadium has already proven that it can host the big boys of international soccer. Last year, both Manchester United and Club America played at the Quakes home, and crowds were electric in both cases. This year? TBD.
The events surrounding the All-Star game are what will make the week so memorable. Earthquakes team president Dave Kaval has already promised that the club and the City of San Jose will go all out -- festivals, concerts, etc. And, who knows, perhaps a few Earthquakes players have standout first halves of the 2016 season and make the squad for the match itself. Even if they don't, you know every player on the roster will be part of the hoopla that surrounds the All-Star game -- maybe with seats among the crowd for what is likely to be the hottest ticket in town this summer.
What do you think of our top-five list? Would you have included another game at the expense of one of these handful? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.