Here I am, late as a Paul Scholes tackle, four weeks into the 2011 MLS season with my first entry in The Diary of an MLS Convert focusing on the San Jose Earthquakes that will be shared with UK converts to MLS. Yes fans - while MLS is still off many people's radar here in the US, there is growing interest across the pond. No Eurosnobs (t)here. I write from the Left Coast of the USA completely intrigued by the existence of this band of other MLS converts from the UK; here’s the story of my own gradual conversion.
My own life as a football fan started in the Riverside stand at Ewood Park, but now I live in California, where I enjoy games in the temperate San Francisco bay area - I especially appreciate that I no longer have to wear two pairs of gloves and three pairs of socks to survive the match without frostbite. That said, please allow me to shatter a few preconceptions about my life in Northern California: I don’t surf (except the internet), I don’t enjoy a macrobiotic vegan diet (who does? Pass the pies please, and don’t skimp on the HP) and I definitely don’t use the word ‘like’ as an interjection. As if!
I will freely admit that I squandered a decade of football fandom when my head was turned by the novelty of baseball and its mysterious statistics. It was an era when coverage of soccer in the US was meager and the flow of the game was interrupted by ads (yes, really). Coverage gradually improved, and by 2002 ESPN covered the entire World Cup with matches broadcast live in the middle of the night. 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 this country toward soccer. My own interest in football was re-ignited, and it got me wondering where I could go to watch a match.
And so began my conversion to MLS by the San Jose Earthquakes. Fifteen years ago this week, 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 aptly named Spartan Stadium. The next decade was a great time to be a Quakes fan as the team won the MLS Cup twice in 2001 and 2003 (epic) and the Supporters’ shield in 2005. However, just a few weeks later 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 watched in San Jose. I’ve always felt cheated as a fan that we couldn’t witness these successes.
The only thing San Jose had left was the Earthquakes name and after three years MLS returned a new team to the city in 2008. Things were looking up for the league: Beckham had just arrived in MLS and the league was expanding. For the Quakes fans 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 early in the fourth season, and the fans are still waiting for our soccer-specific stadium to be built - 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 George Best and Colin Bell were playing here. They 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 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 knows quite a lot about the beautiful game all over the world. Our regular Saturday evening game 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 on your way into the stadium. 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.