My Career As A Soccer Nerd.
Life as a football fan started in my childhood in the Riverside stand at Ewood Park, as a fan of Blackburn Rovers in Division Three. I live now in California, where 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 football match without frostbite.
On my arrival stateside in the 1990s, I freely admit that I squandered a decade of football fandom when my head was turned by the novelty of baseball and its compelling statistics. It was an era when television coverage of soccer in the US was meager and the flow of the game was interrupted by ads (yes, really -- Ireland upset Italy 1-0 in the ‘94 World Cup, and the single goal came during an advertising break).
Media coverage of soccer in the US has gradually improved, and by 2002 ESPN was broadcasting the entire World Cup with matches broadcast live in the middle of the night – staying up late to watch late matches was always a childhood badge of honor. The England and US teams had good runs deep into the tournament and Americans watched in unheard of numbers for their unexpected defeat of Mexico; I might even argue that match was pivotal in turning the USA toward soccer.
Indeed, that particular World Cup re-ignited my own interest in football, and I ditched baseball and returned to my first love. I wondered where I could go to watch a match, and so began my conversion to MLS by the San Jose Earthquakes -- the nearest team to my new life in Northern California.
The Original MLS Earthquakes.
The very birth of MLS was the inaugural matchup between the San Jose Clash (who subsequently reverted to their original NASL name Earthquakes in 1999) and DC United – the Clash won 1-0 at the aptly named Spartan Stadium. The next decade was a great time to be an Earthquakes fan as the team won the MLS Cup twice in 2001 and 2003 (especially epic) and the Supporters’ shield in 2005.
I was won over to the first iteration of the San Jose Earthquakes, after the most famous – and arguably the most exciting – game ever played: the second leg of the Western conference semi-final against the LA Galaxy. November 9th, 2003 – I still have the ticket.
The Quakes were trailing 2-0 after the first leg, and went down by another two goals in the first fifteen minutes. What happened next is etched into lore that contributes to the rivalry with the LA Galaxy. The Quakes were reeling but scored two of their own before half time, and managed another in the fiftieth minute (aggregate 4-3 to the Galaxy). All the subs had been made, Jeff Agoos could barely move, and the squad was gassed when Chris Roner’s ninetieth minute equalizer and Rodrigo Faria’s golden goal in extra time capped the greatest comeback (5-4 aggregate) in MLS history. At that point, then Quakes fans knew destiny was on their side, and the team went on to win the 2003 MLS Cup 4-2 over the Chicago Fire.
Even after the continued success of the Earthquakes, just a few weeks after winning the Earthquakes 2005 Supporters’ Shield, and to the fans’ abject despair, it was announced that the team was moving to Houston. At that time, AEG maintained that without a soccer-specific stadium, the team would not be financially viable. “If you don’t build it we will go” -- so they went.
The transplanted Houston Dynamo went on to win the 2006 and 2007 MLS Cups with a team essentially built of the same players the Quakes fans had watched in San Jose. I’ve always felt cheated as a fan that we couldn’t witness that squad’s continued victories. Only now, after the retirement of the last so-called “Zombie Quakes” have I been able to put my resentment to rest.
The only thing San Jose had left was the Earthquakes name and after three years in the wilderness MLS returned a new team with the same name to the city in 2008. Things were looking up for the league: Beckham had just arrived in MLS and the league was expanding. Ravenous after being starved of soccer, I purchased season tickets posthaste, and I’ve been yelling at the refs from the centerline ever since.
The Quakes fans were promised a new stadium within a couple of years – in the meantime the team played in Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw stadium. If my previous life as a fan in Spartan Stadium was, well, Spartan, then my life as a fan of Quakes 2.0 at Buck Shaw was very Spartan. The stadium was austere, with cramped aluminum bleachers, but the up-side was that you couldn’t help but quickly make friends with ten thousand fellow fans. Many of those fans have been supporting the team for years, even since the old NASL days, when George Best and Colin Bell were playing in San Jose. Lasting friendships were forged at Buck Shaw, and blocks of fans moved in unison across the railroad tracks to Avaya Stadium, where they now continue to share beer, food and banter.
Why I Still Watch The Earthquakes.
There's a neighbor in my street who professes to be a soccer fan, yet openly states he 'won’t cross the road’ to go see an MLS game. The term Eurosnob has been coined to describe such fans, who will watch EPL, La Liga etc. and pay no attention whatsoever to MLS. Even the big city newspaper sports pages have fewer column inches devoted to MLS soccer - you usually have to drill down through the "Other Sports" tab to get to "Soccer".
This apparent disregard for MLS soccer has ramifications for young players breaking into US teams – the relatively low pay (compared to other professional sports) makes me genuinely admire the sheer determination of the average MLS player to eke out a living at the game he loves. Grant Wahl wrote an article in Sports Illustrated that detailed how Chris Wondolowski supplemented his MLS salary coaching youth football just one year before his 2012 breakout season. Wondo believes that his coaching efforts were rewarded with a new perspective on the strategy of the game that led to one of his most successful seasons. After an off the bench hat-trick game against Chivas USA, I recall that as the fans meandered back to the car park, Wondo was signing autographs for and chatting with the fans, all the while being trailed back to the dressing room by a gaggle of his under-11 soccer protégés. That’s never happened at Stamford Bridge.
Stories like that make me feel much more connected to Quakes soccer than I ever did to football in England. Sure, on Saturday mornings I'll be watching the EPL on TV with a steaming cup of strong coffee, and a slice or two of burnt toast -- but I'm always looking forward to my next Quakes game. Even if you believe that other leagues are superior, there are so many positives to seeing any match live that the Eurosnobs should just bury their preconceptions and come out and enjoy an MLS game.
The San Jose Earthquakes have as much history as any MLS team can have. While I find that the average American sports fan knows little about soccer, the average American soccer fan knows quite a lot about the beautiful game all over the world. Our regular Saturday evening game at Avaya Stadium comes after the morning EPL games and east coast MLS games in the afternoon, so you can hear plenty of chatter about the day’s games as the faithful wend their way to their seats. I don’t believe it’s that much different from any game you would attend in England, Brazil or Japan; there are more similarities than differences. I don’t want to be anywhere else.