Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.

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A HIGHLY UNLIKELY SOCCER HOTBED

A crowd of 13,822 was on hand at Harder Stadium to see the host UC Santa Barbara men defeat Big West Conference rival Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2-0.  [November 4]

Comment:  Absolutely anywhere in America can become a soccer hotbed, even the laid-back, sunsplashed, tony beach town of Santa Barbara, CA. 

Consider that when Harder Stadium played host to the most significant soccer match in its history, just 9,127 showed up to see the U.S. National Team–16 months ahead of the 1994 World Cup it would host–hold Romania to a 1-1 draw.

This match’s significance was along the lines of, perhaps, a game in the French fourth division.  In winning, the Gauchos clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big West Conference playoffs and avenged a loss at Cal Poly earlier in the season.  Hardly anyone in U.S. collegiate soccer noticed.   But those among the 13,822 who hadn’t made the trip down the coast from San Luis Obispo went home happy and will be back again.

Somehow, Santa Barbara has become a soccer hotbed, at least on the collegiate level.  Last year, Harder Stadium was site of six of the season’s 10 best-attended men’s matches.  An early-season game against UCLA drew a throng of 15,896; followed by Duke at 11,242.  UCSB hosted the 2010 NCAA Division I men’s final between Akron and Louisville, and that attracted 9,672.  In all, the Gauchos, in 12 home games, led NCAA soccer in total attendance, 70,471, and average turnstile count, 5,873.   By comparison, the late, unlamented Miami Fusion could muster only an additional 1,500 per home game before it was booted out of Major League Soccer.

There are other collegiate soccer hotbeds, like reigning champion Akron, and long-time powers Maryland, UConn, Virginia and Indiana.   Like those schools, UCSB men’s soccer is a winner and represents a school far from any bright lights, but it has the additional advantage of not having to compete for attention with a gridiron football team.  Regardless, most NCAA Division I men’s teams are lucky to break four figures on a regular basis, and nearly every NASL and USL club would kill for the Gauchos’ box office numbers.

Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg must be left marvelling at it all.  When he was a younger man, standout defender Vom Steeg was a member of the now-forgotten Real Santa Barbara (1989 and 1990), then of the Western Soccer League and American Professional Soccer League.   It was the highest level of soccer in the U.S. at the time.  Playing a few miles down the coast at La Playa Stadium on the campus of Santa Barbara City College, Real Santa Barbara faced the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda, Robin Fraser, Martin Vasquez and Dominic Kinnear.  Announced attendance was always in the neighborhood of 830, but reality said that there were no more than a hundred souls in the stands, and most of them could be caught gazing beyond the field, past the gently swaying palm trees and marina to the blue Pacific.  The prospect of any Real Santa Barbara game being televised nationally–like the UCSB-Cal Poly match–would have been both laughable and embarrassing.

Obviously, things have changed in Santa Barbara.  But there is the suspicion that the biggest change involves the rise of a generation of soccer-savvy young people who are willing to rally around the right team at the right time and who realize that those good times they see beamed from major European stadiums can be replicated here in the U.S.