It's fitting that as the country celebrated Turkey Day, the world's biggest game of chicken continues to be waged in Northern California over the fate of the San Jose Earthquakes. On one side, you have owners AEG, who seem determined to follow through on their oft-repeated threat to move the team to Houston. On the other, you have Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, who are looking to purchase the team, thereby keeping the Earthquakes in the Bay Area.
The impending collision is almost too much for San Jose's loyal fans to watch, but it's a feeling they've gotten used to over the years. This holiday season marks the fifth consecutive winter of their discontent, in which ownership and relocation issues have swamped any residual afterglow from the Quakes' considerable on-field successes.
Following San Jose's first championship in 2001, Miami and Tampa Bay were contracted. Opinions vary as to just how close the Quakes came to meeting the same fate, but as former G.M. Greg Elliott told me, "I don't think there was anyone else ahead of us in line."
The end of the 2002 season saw the Quakes' once and future savior, SVS&E, back out of running the team following the sale of their parent organization, the NHL's San Jose Sharks. The Sharks' new owners decided that adding the Quakes to their looming labor troubles was more than they could handle. That left AEG holding the bag, and the bitter resentment they've shown in the interim has been palpable.
2003 saw the beginning of AEG's dalliance with Club America, and the specter of relocation has been hanging over the Quakes' heads ever since.
This was followed closely by the arrival of general manager Alexi Lalas, and a renewed vow by AEG president Tim Leiweke to "bring all of AEG's resources and money to the table" in finding a stadium solution. Those words proved to be emptier than the Meadowlands during a midweek MetroStars game. While AEG understandably focused their efforts on solving the stadium situation in New York, little real effort was made at doing the same in San Jose.
Instead, more energy was expended on relocating the team. Last year it was only the eleventh-hour efforts of fan group Soccer Silicon Valley that kept the team in place. Heck, not since my last viewing of "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly" have I seen the hangman cheated this often.
But if the Quakes do leave the South Bay, their departure can be summarized thusly: Good for AEG, Bad for MLS, and Ugly for the fans who have stuck by the team.
The benefits to AEG are obvious. The bastard franchise of MLS will go to a new city, with supposedly better economics, although playing in a high school stadium, as is currently rumored, seems like scant improvement over the Earthquakes' current situation.
The same can't be said about MLS. Not only would the league be abandoning a market that appears tailor-made for a franchise, but a sizable amount of passion for the league would be killed as a result. And let's face it, MLS is crying out for as much enthusiasm as it can get its hands on.
Passion is what has defined the rivalry between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes, and I defy anyone to tell me that there is another one in the league like it. The MetroStars and D.C. United? It would help if these teams had played in any meaningful games since the 1996 playoffs. Dallas and Chicago? Promising, but they don't meet each other often enough with anything on the line. The Galaxy and Chivas USA? That's the soccer equivalent of a fake promotion.
Passion is what causes a team to average over 13,000 fans a game for two years running, despite near-constant threats that the franchise would be moved, not to mention the relocation of its star player.
And for those who would turn up their nose at San Jose's attendance figures, take away the bogus double-header numbers from every team's attendance, and the Quakes rank fourth behind the Galaxy, D.C. United, and Real Salt Lake. Does anyone really believe that the 88,816 fans that showed up at the L.A. Coliseum on August 10 were there to see the Galaxy and Chivas USA instead of Mexican sides CD Chivas and Club America?
What passion won't buy is a soccer-specific stadium, which doubles as the key to the MLS franchise kingdom these days. But before you can even think of building a soccer-specific venue, you need committed owners, and if AEG proved anything during their tenure in San Jose, it's that they were about as committed to the community as Elizabeth Taylor was to her ex-husbands. Whether it was Landon Donovan ending up with the Galaxy, or Lalas ending up with the MetroStars, it was clear just where the Quakes stood in the eyes of their owner. Some would argue that the gargantuan conflict of interest present was about the only interest AEG directed towards the Quakes.
Hopefully, this is where SVS&E, and their president Greg Jamison, come in. SVS&E and AEG, who own the L.A. Kings, were allies during the NHL lockout, and the silence surrounding the current negotiations is leaving fans hopeful that something can be hashed out.
Given the lead time that stadium deals require, it seems unlikely the next few weeks will see all of the i's dotted and t's crossed with regard to a new arena. A more likely scenario is some kind of bridge deal is being discussed, whereby SVS&E will buy the team with a new and improved lease at Spartan Stadium.
A team operated by SVS&E would finally give the Quakes' fans an organization worthy of their hard-earned dollars. AEG's idea of a marketing plan, amidst all of their threats to move or fold the franchise, has been mostly along the lines of "Shut up and be glad you have a team." That would be sure to change under SVS&E. And if the prospective buyers can find a way to get a deal done, it would make San Jose's long-suffering fans doubly thankful this holiday season.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.