The ball crashed against the bottom of the crossbar, through the goalie’s flailing arms and into the back of the net. The silence was interrupted by the celebrations of the visiting team’s players and their few fans.
A day begun in belief and anticipation was ending in defeat and disgust.
We still had time, but not much.
Our team, the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, needed to win this final game of the regular season to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. The Quakes had endured a season as shifting as land created by dredged fill from the San Francisco Bay during a temblor, looking like a playoff team one week but laying an egg the next. The team fired a coach who had won multiple league titles partway through the season, replacing him with the technical director who had no professional coaching experience, and who coached like it, at least from this amateur’s perspective. They entered the final match with a laughable -22 goal difference.
I arrived early, as is my habit. The stadium was already buzzing, many adults clad in the jerseys of their favorite teams from Mexico, Central America or Europe, the kids often favoring Quakes gear or the shirts from their local youth leagues. Though the dominant language is English, Spanish abounds along with smatterings of other languages.
A few seats down, a father discussed tactics in a thick eastern European accent with his young son, who listened attentively. The tutorial continued throughout the match.
At $40 a pop for good seats, and much less for locations higher up or behind the one goal that isn’t taken up by what the Quakes claim is the largest outdoor bar at a sports stadium, a Quakes match remains affordable relative to other major sporting events. Prices increased a bit when the new stadium opened a few years back, but the increase is worth it, to me at least, especially since parking is free if you’re willing to find a spot in a nearby neighborhood and walk for 20 minutes.
Though still a blip on the Richter scale of a saturated professional sports market (I’m trying to keep the puns to a minimum, I swear), the standard of play in Major League Soccer has improved from deplorable in the early years to poor by the mid-2000s, to mediocre by the beginning of this decade to its current state as a middle-of-the-pack professional league that – unlike many leagues of similar stature – is still improving year by year.
A founding member of MLS, the San Jose Clash (as they were called until 1999) played at San Jose State University’s Spartan Stadium until 2005, when the team up and moved to Houston. After a three-year hiatus, the league awarded San Jose a new franchise, based in large part on a plan to build a soccer-specific stadium.
Though an expansion team, San Jose retained the logo, name and history of the old Quakes, through a bit of revisionist history similar to when the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, only for the NFL to inexplicably reward a new franchise to lose the majority of their games in Cleveland.
From their return in 2008 until 2014, the Quakes played at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium, outfitted with port-a-potties and food trucks and mostly metal benches that felt like they might collapse under the weight of the spectators.
I wondered, between bouts of heckling Landon Donovan or David Beckham from the hated LA Galaxy, what the stadium would look like if an actual earthquake struck.
But enough of that. We’re generally to avoid talking about such unpleasant possibilities.
We now get to watch acceptable professional soccer at the excellent 18,000-seat Avaya Stadium, which opened in 2015. Give it a few more years and the standard of play might actually match the quality of the venue.
In the match at hand, our boys had been leading 2-1 with approximately 10 minutes left when Francisco Calvo scored the goal that sucked the air out of the stadium.
A few minutes later, the Quakes brought on Costa Rican striker Marco Ureña, whose two goals against the United States a few months earlier had helped doom the Yanks’ chances of making the World Cup – an inexcusable failure that we’d best not discuss further or this Dispatch might turn into a much different, expletive-filled rant.
The Quakes boomed passes into the opposition’s penalty area, many to defender Victor Bernardez, moved up front in the hopes that his fearlessness and strength might make the difference.
We cheered on, more in desperation than belief.
In the second minute of extra time the goalie let sail another long ball. Bernardez, who had been inexplicably benched after the new coach took over before being reinstated for the past few games, threw himself in front of two players and headed the ball into the ground. The ball bounced up. Bernardez headed it again, this time into the path of the charging Quincy Amarikwa.
His first-time strike was parried by the goalkeeper across the goal to the waiting feet of captain Chris Wondolowski, known more in the soccer world at large for a shot he missed against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup than for the franchise record 130 goals he has scored for the Quakes.
Wondo kept his cool, deftly playing the ball back across the goal. Ureña hit it one time with his right foot. The ball deflected off an onrushing defender before crossing the line.
Ureña spun around and began to head to the corner flag to celebrate, but instead turned to Wondolowski. The two embraced and fell to the ground.
We fans screamed, jumped and hugged our friends, and some strangers. I had to stop to make sure that – in my delirium – I wasn’t going to jump onto a chair.
But it wasn’t over.
After enduring the final couple minutes of extra time, which seemed more like 10 minutes, the final whistle blew. Pandemonium resumed on the field and in the stands.
As we slowly filed out after watching players spray each other with champagne, my friend said it was almost as good as a walk-off home run an Oakland Athletics player hit a few years back in a game we watched against the hated New York Yankees, a big compliment from a diehard baseball fan.
I told him I’d be in touch about playoff tickets, forgetting that the Quakes had merely made it to a one-game knockout round on the road that they would have to win to host a playoff game.
The match reminded me why I love to watch live sports.
Though professional athletes are overpaid and oft-spoiled, and most of them should not be considered role models, they are entertainers. And on this day they entertained.
And unlike most movies or TV shows, where the good guy usually wins, you never know with sports. And with dozens of teams in most leagues and only one champion, the chances are your team is going to end up failing in the end, and players and fans have to learn to deal with that failure.
The Quakes, true to form, got walloped in the knockout round, and they hired a new coach a few weeks later, sending the technical director back behind the scenes.
But it barely mattered.
We’ll always have the memories of the (almost) last-minute goal that saved our season, and the future looks bright for our plucky team from the South Bay.
About our coverage of Silicon Valley:
Courthouse News Service has provided coverage of the superior courts for Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties for more than a decade.
Santa Clara County Facts
County Seat: San Jose
Population: 1.7 million
Named After: Mission Santa Clara, established in 1777, which was named for Saint Clare of Assisi.
San Mateo County Facts
County Seat: Redwood City
Named After: Spanish name for Saint Matthew.