This Saturday night will be an interesting one in San Jose. (This is probably a cat column for many of you ... I know I have readers who skip the sports postings, and even those who read them skip the soccer postings, but I think this one is a bit more interesting than most, although it is indeed about soccer.)
The San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer make for an odd tale. San Jose was chosen for the very first MLS match ever back in 1996, thanks in part to solid support for the San Jose franchise in the old NASL days. This was known as a good soccer area. Unfortunately, the team was poorly managed in its earliest days, resulting in several years where the team was an embarrassment on the field and at the turnstiles. San Jose was the worst team in the league in 2000, and their future looked to be in jeopardy ... in fact, after the following season, two franchises were discontinued, and rumors flew that San Jose would be one of those two.
In 2001, several things changed. Canadian Frank Yallop took over as manager ... he was joined on the team by new-to-MLS Canadian forward Dwayne DeRosario. Jeff Agoos, who had already won several championships in MLS, came to the club and instantly became a team leader and stalwart defender. And Landon Donovan, arguably the finest soccer talent America has yet produced, was assigned to San Jose. He was 19 years old.
What a difference a year made. Agoos was named the league's Defender of the Year, Yallop its Coach of the Year. And on October 21, 2001, in the league championship match, Dwayne DeRosario scored a goal in sudden-death overtime to give the Earthquakes their first MLS title.
The next year, Landon Donovan became almost a household name. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (v.unusual for America) and he scored goals in the 2002 World Cup finals. In 2003, the Quakes found themselves down by four goals to their hated rivals from Los Angeles in their playoff matchup. Somehow, San Jose scored five goals to win what many have called the greatest match in MLS history. The Quakes went on to take the MLS championship for the second time in three years ... Landon Donovan scored twice and was named MVP for the final match.
After 2004, Donovan, who had been on loan to MLS from his club in Germany, finally returned to Europe, with the bittersweet thanks of San Jose fans for his four great seasons. Landon did not make it through the season in Germany, though ... he didn't play much, didn't always play well when he did play, and eventually, his contract was sold to MLS, allowing him to return in time for the 2005 season.
Well, MLS has very weird rules about where players are assigned. For a variety of reasons, Landon Donovan wasn't assigned to San Jose. Instead, he went to the Los Angeles Galaxy, the hated rivals of San Jose. Landon was ecstatic ... he has a Hollywood starlet girlfriend and he was born in SoCal. But Quakes fans were pretty pissed off. Donovan paid lip service to us, but he clearly wanted to be in LA, which may have made sense for him but was inexcusable to us. While in some oddball MLS alternate reality, the assignation of Donovan to Los Angeles made sense, for Quakes fans it was a slap in the face. Especially considering that MLS allows people to own more than one franchise ... and in fact, the company that operated the Quakes also ran ... you guessed it, the Los Angeles Galaxy. LA is a lot more glamorous than San Jose, the success of their franchise is obviously more important to MLS than is San Jose's ... and Landon's move hinted of shenanigans anyway.
Meanwhile, San Jose fans are hit almost daily with new rumors about the team moving to Texas. Whatever is true, it does seem clear that the San Jose Earthquakes, for many reasons, some of them perhaps good ones, are the ugly stepchild of MLS. Their fans are few in number but extremely vocal in spirit. And they have not taken any of this kindly.
And thus it is that we have all marked a special date on our calendars, June 25, when Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy make their first appearance of the season at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. Landon hasn't helped matters much by publicly questioning San Jose fans for not welcoming him back with open arms ... like many athletes, he has little sense of what it means to be a fan, and so is apparently completely clueless about why his move to Los Angeles has raised so much anger. He seems to think we should give him thankful applause during player introductions for those four great years and two championships, and then we can respectfully move on to cheering for our Quakes against his Galaxy.
You never know, but I suspect he's not going to get the reception he wants. My guess is, he will be booed when he comes onto the field for warmups, he will be booed when he is introduced before the match, he will be booed every time he touches the ball (you think I'm exaggerating, but this has actually happened in the past, to a man named Diego Serna who pissed us off for a gazillion reasons back in the day and had to listen to our noise every single time he touched the ball for an entire match). If he scores a goal and plays it cool, he will be booed. If he scores a goal and taunts us, he will be booed even louder. If he looks into the stands, he will see plenty of tee-shirts given away the last four years, ones with his name and number on the back ... only now, fans have put tape over his name, x-ing out his traitorous existence.
San Jose Earthquakes fans feel betrayed, by Landon Donovan, by our owners, by MLS. We are fearful that our team will be gone next year. This may be one of the last times we can let people know how we feel. And we're loud. Look for us on ESPN2, Saturday night, 7:00 Pacific time.
[ETA: Looks like some of the lads will be supplying a Landon Donovan pinata for pre-game festivities.]