It’s “What if?” week over here at SB Nation, and the first question of that sort that came to mind was easy, if obviously painful to reflect on: What if the San Jose Earthquakes hadn’t moved to Houston and gone on hiatus locally for two years?
Ah yes, that question.
It’s worth thinking it through. I think you can make a few sweeping pronouncements in this counterfactual exercise.
First and foremost, both skipping two years of MLS and having to re-launch the club stopped a lot of momentum for the club, on and off the field.
While the stated reason for the Quakes being moved was because there was an impasse in finding a site for a soccer-specific stadium project, ideally, and if not a more affordable rental, and not losing money hand over fist in rental fees at Spartan Stadium.
When MLS launched there were a bunch of owners, but over the early years of the league, as the going got tough, ownership of all the teams consolidated among three parties: Robert Kraft, Lamar Hunt, and AEG. They were the ones that saved the league from extinction, when MLS was a signature away from going bust around 2002. In fact, Kraft owned the Quakes for a time before AEG eventually took control in 2003
So AEG owned the Quakes in 2005, and while it’s great they existed and everything, the consolidation led to some situations where it didn’t seem altogether fair for just a few guys to own all of the teams. Plus, San Jose’s ownership had been passed around like a hot potato, and AEG seemed set to continue that trend.
In the end, the motivation to move the club was partly because AEG wanted a new location to entice a new owner and partly because MLS wanted a team in Houston one way or another. Without resistance from the league, the move went ahead, and San Jose was left holding the bag, initially uncertain if the team would return.
Now, on the field the move was catastrophic for the Earthquakes. You probably don’t need to be reminded, but after San Jose won MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003, the Houston Dynamo, with the Quakes roster transplanted to Texas, won MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007.
Can we say for sure the Quakes would have won those titles in San Jose? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it seems fairly likely they could have gotten at least one and quite possibly both. Four titles would have pulled them level in MLS history with D.C. United, and this would be rightly recognized as the second dynasty in MLS lore.
Instead, Houston got all of the glory with none of the hard work, and San Jose got to watch their beloved team from afar win back-to-back MLS Cups. Of course it was galling.
It gets worse. While the Dynamo themselves stayed competitive after 2007, and had back-to-back MLS Cup appearances in 2011-12, where they lost both finals, the Dynamo have been pretty bad since then. They slid to mediocrity and then worse.
But the Quakes had to start all over, build an expansion team without the comfort they were doing this for the first time. Sure, the new owners were doing this for the first time, but fans had already been through this. Would the new Earthquakes be instant contenders and pick up where they left off?
Nope. In 12 full seasons since returning from the two-year hiatus, San Jose have reached the playoffs just three times. Yes, they played in the Concacaf Champions League once in that span and won the 2012 Supporters’ Shield, but that one trophy is all they have to show for the rebirth era.
You can’t chalk it all up to AEG moving the club, some of the blame has to go to the current owner, and various front office regimes and coaching staffs for making poor decisions.
But all of the momentum the Earthquakes had built through 2005 was totally frittered away. Joe Cannon, Ramiro Corrales and Chris Wondolowski are among the few bridges between the two MLS Quakes eras on the roster, but from building an MLS Cup winner to having to start all over is a total gut punch.
So to recap: Moving the team stalled the process to find a new owner for the Quakes, hurt the momentum locally for the team in cultivating and maintaining the fanbase, and likely also hurt the process of the Quakes building their own soccer-specific stadium, which wasn’t completed until 2015. Most tangibly, the on-field product suffered considerably, going from an MLS Cup-caliber winning squad to going dark for two years and then starting over to build an expansion team roster, all while the original Quakes roster won two MLS Cup titles in another city during that hiatus.
On one hand it’s good that the Quakes got to keep their titles and records from 1996-2005 to carry over to the new phase of the franchise. On the other hand, it’s truly rotten Houston had a two-time MLS Cup winner fall in their laps after being forged in San Jose.
It definitely altered the course of San Jose Earthquakes history. And even though it’s just that, history, with the club forced to look to the future to build a new era of success, perhaps the biggest “What if?” in Quakes history is both painful and probably incredibly consequential for the club.
What do you think? Do you agree with the arguments and outcomes here? Leave a comment below!