Homeless no more, San Jose joins the ranks of pro soccer teams ensconced in a custom-made facility
The opening of yet another stadium built primarily for an MLS team, in this case the “soft” curtain-raiser for the Quakes against archrival Galaxy on Saturday, is more than a milestone for the league and the team. It’s literally another case of pro soccer in America breaking new ground.
But first the game itself, the final preseason match for both teams in advance of their league openers this weekend. These teams have conjured up some spectacular encounters the past few seasons, and this one followed suit: five goals, a few chippy incidents and rough tackles, and a brief hailstorm mixed into a second-half downpour that forced many fans to seek shelter. But nothing could dampen the mood that finally, more than four decades after the old NASL Quakes first took the field, the local soccer team had found a sense of place.
The storm cleared out most of the fans that had been congregating at the huge outdoor bar -- billed as the “largest in North America,” though some rooftop bars in Las Vegas and other cites might be worthy challengers to that title -- that takes up most of the endline behind one of the goals. Behind the bar and a giant video screen that displayed the action in crisp, bright tones were aligned numerous food trucks of various influences. At the team’s previous home, a renovated facility on the campus of Santa Clara University, the two concession stands would embarrass the Little League World Series.
Originally conceived as a bare-bones facility with a capacity of 15,500 -- a figure that surely raised eyebrows and objections at MLS headquarters -- instead Avaya Stadium is a high-tech marvel replete with TV screens and open spaces as well as great sightlines and 16 luxury suites and 576 club seats. The stadium is one large WiFi hotspot: Fans can use mobile devices to order concessions and scan tickets and stay connected to everything, including the game they are attending.
Owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher initially proposed a facility costing about $60 million; instead, a $100 million outlay includes a three-sided roof that offered protection for the unusual inclement weather and also enhanced and reinforced the cheers and boos and chants of a crowd that was supposed to be about 10,000 but seemed smaller. (No doubt many chose to check out the outdoor bar and other amenities rather than sit seated for the entire game.)
The real home opener is March 22 against Chicago, and how the facility handles a capacity crowd on a Sunday afternoon, normally a time that airports such as nearby Mineta San Jose International experience heavy traffic, will be among the factors closely monitored by team executives as well as local officials. If there are long lines at concession stands or jammed traffic on Coleman Avenue, the main corridor for the airport as well as the stadium, questions will be asked and solutions discussed.
Yet each time an MLS stadium opens its doors, the league takes a small but significant stride forward. The Quakes are a great example; never has this team had its own facility. The old NASL Cosmos were glamorous tenants, but tenants nonetheless, at Giants Stadium. The NASL Dallas Tornado played at numerous facilities, including the Cotton Bowl and Irving Stadium also used by the NFL Cowboys. The history of pro soccer in America is one of teams scrounging out an existence in baseball or football facilities, and not all of them housing pro teams in other sports.
Spartan Stadium -- opened in 1933 and home to the San Jose State football team -- hosted the old NASL team as well as the Clash and Quakes 2.0, and Buck Shaw was a renovated college facility used mostly by the university’s men’s and women’s soccer teams, and before that, the baseball team. Fisher and Wolff spent about $3 million on that facility and still fans had to endure seven seasons of Port-A-Potties and those two cramped concession stands.
Last year, the opening of nearby Levi’s Stadium -- home of the NFL 49ers, which began operations in 1946 -- signaled yet other change of venue. The Niners had always played with the San Francisco city limits, and the move of about 30 miles angered and disappointed a large segment of the fan base. Though neither Kezar Stadium -- an ancient facility built in 1925 and renovated several times -- nor Candlestick Park -- shared with the San Francisco Giants -- were anything close to ideal, both were cherished by fans as homes they could tolerate.
The Niners have a spectacular new place, but it’s a long way out of the city and everything is a lot more expensive and the team went 8-8 and fired its head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Quakes fans have no such frame of reference. In the dark ages between the demise of the old NASL (1984) and launch of MLS (1996), semi-pro teams such as the Quakes and San Francisco Bay Blackhawks used Spartan Stadium or high school stadiums. In the interim, not only have more than a dozen MLS teams built their own stadiums, many lower-division soccer teams have as well. No longer will Quakes fans feel envious of the Charleston Battery aficionados who flock to Blackbaud Stadium (opened in 1999!) year after year.
Avaya is their first real home, just like StubHub is for the Galaxy and Rio Tinto is for Real Salt Lake and so on for more than a dozen MLS teams. Putting down roots, as so few teams have been able to do for decades, is literally what separates MLS teams from most of their predecessors and gives those fans a solid foundation for their loyalty and enthusiasm without which MLS cannot thrive.