Major League Soccer begins its tenth season this coming weekend, and while that statement in itself speaks volumes about how far the league has come (many assumed it would have fallen apart by now), it also speaks volumes about how no one cares (it's entirely possible no one is reading these words because the minute they saw the word "soccer" they figured "I don't need to read this one" and moved to another website).
The San Jose Earthquakes have been a bastard stepchild of MLS since their birth. From the beginning of the league, some teams were owned and operated by the league, while awaiting a local person or group that would buy in. While San Jose has a long soccer history, they haven't yet been able to convince anyone to buy the team. Meanwhile, the structure of MLS is odd, to say the least ... the league owns the contracts of the players, unlike most other leagues where the individual teams own the players. Finally, to keep the league afloat, some people/groups are in charge of more than one franchise. All of this would seem to argue against legitimate competition ... whether chicanery is really involved or not, the impression of chicanery is enough to taint the league. MLS can fudge rosters, since they own the players' contracts ... if they want a good team in New York or Los Angeles, they might be able to do something about it that other leagues could not. Owners in charge of more than one franchise might improve one club at the expense of another.
This does not mean chicanery actually happens ... it just means there's a taint in the air. (I wrote about this in more detail back in 2001, when I covered the beginning of the WUSA for the Bay Guardian.) Suspicion is always just behind the corner, due to the very structure of the league.
Meanwhile, San Jose, ownerless, oftentimes run by idiots, has problems. Attendance is lower than you'd like, and more than once the team has been thisclose to being moved to another part of the country.
Nonetheless, in 2001, when Landon Donovan came to MLS, he was awarded to the Earthquakes. Donovan is often called the best American soccer player, and sure enough, when he joined San Jose, they went from being the laughing stock of the league to winning MLS championships in 2001 and 2003. Donovan was on loan from the German club Bayer Leverkusen, who had signed him when he was a teenager ... a young teenager, as he was still a teenager when he joined MLS. The Germans extended Landon's loan once ... eventually, he played four years with San Jose, and in 2002, while a member of the Quakes, he was a crucial member of the USA squad that made the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
Here is where the story gets ... um, tainted. Leverkusen finally called Landon back to Germany ... he said he was more mature now, and ready to take on the higher level of play in Europe. The Quakes thanked him for his contributions to their two championships, and went about rebuilding the team. But Landon didn't do well in Germany ... he didn't play much, at least. And so we started hearing hints that he wanted to come back to MLS.
Now, do you suppose he'd go back to San Jose? Well, the rules of MLS are arcane at best, and depending on who you listen to, either the Quakes got screwed or the Quakes screwed up, but whatever the case, Landon Donovan will not be coming back to San Jose. Which is fine ... I loved watching him play for four years, but things change.
The newest and finest soccer-specific stadium in the country is the recently-built Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, home of the Quakes top rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Galaxy are owned by AEG, a company that also owns the Home Depot Center, along with a lot of other sports franchises (Phil Anschutz, who I assume is the "A" in AEG, also recently bought the San Francisco Examiner.) Coincidentally, Phil is also currently in charge of the ownerless San Jose Earthquakes. He put Alexi Lalas in the General Manager's seat at San Jose ... Lalas, still one of the more recognizable figures in American soccer, played three years for Los Angeles.
OK, did you follow all of that? You've got the LA Galaxy owner in charge of the rival Earthquakes ... you've got the Quakes being run by an ex-Galaxy player ... and now, you've got a San Jose front office that, for whatever reason, has lost Landon Donovan, only to see Landon return to the league to play for ...
Yes, you guessed it. Tomorrow, a press conference will be held to announce that Landon Donovan, the so-called savior of American soccer, and the only soccer player in the world that my son would pay to see, has been assigned to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
There are many good reasons for this, and many of them are completely stink-free. But there's a taint, don't you think? And when the Earthquakes move to Houston, or Mexico City, or wherever, perhaps no one but us jaded few Quakes fans will even remember the glory years of those two championships.
But on June 25, Landon Donovan will come to San Jose for the first time wearing the colors of the hated Galaxy. And I guarantee you, the greatest player in the history of the franchise will be heartily booed the moment he sets foot on the field. Because that's what it means to be a fan ... when your fair-haired golden-boy-baby-jesus spurns you for the Galactiscum, you don't even say thanks for the memories, you just boo, long and hard.
Meanwhile, this Saturday night, I'll be at Spartan Stadium for the opening of the tenth season, just as I was at the inaugural match of MLS, also at Spartan, back in 1996. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last season for MLS in San Jose ... if so, at least we'll go out with a boo on our throats. Welcome to LA, Landon, you scum.