Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Victory Lap

Remembering 20 years since the San Jose Earthquakes' worst-to-first comeback
GAME ON: The San Jose Earthquakes team celebrates after defeating the LA Galaxy to win the 2001 MLS Cup. Photo Courtesy of Major League Soccer

As sports venues prepare to open back up, the San Jose Earthquakes will also spend 2021 celebrating the 20th anniversary of their first championship team, the 2001 squad that won the MLS Cup.

As former players, coaches, trainers, fans and employees begin to chime in with their memories of that season, I feel obligated to join the fray.

2001 was when I began covering the team, writing match reports for a now-defunct website called Slide Tackle Magazine. They loaned me a laptop and a voice recorder just to do the gig. I don't remember how it started, but I was there every game, back when CEFCU Stadium was still called Spartan Stadium, in the beautifully crumbling old press box, surrounded by heavyset sportswriters and visiting PR people in bad polos and '90s hairdos.

For a time, I even had Slide Tackle Magazine business cards. This at least felt like a real gig in that I also got to interview players in the beautifully crumbling old locker room, which seemed like it hadn't improved since the '70s. Some players had vocabularies while others didn't.

The beginning of that season was unique in the history of Major League Soccer (MLS). At the end of the 2000 campaign, the Quakes had finished dead last in the league; they were a total embarrassment. However, the complete engine rebuild that soon followed became a textbook worst-to-first scenario. It was fantastic to watch and cover.

In January of 2001, Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, the Sharks' business arm at the time, became the official operator of the Earthquakes. Just a few weeks later, they named Frank Yallop the Quakes' new head coach. At the time, Yallop was 36 and had never managed a pro team.

Then on March 29, the Quakes held a press conference at the Shark Tank, which was then called the Compaq Center.

I was already working as a freelance writer to some degree, mostly with cheap travel assignments, web writing and other outlets, but I was not a journalist that anyone in the local sports world knew. At the time, I hoped to someday get out of San Jose forever.

Yet for reasons I don't remember, I decided to go to the Shark Tank and sneak in to the press conference. I had no idea what they were announcing, but I waltzed in and told the PR lady I was a season ticket holder, so I deserved to be there. She shrugged, gave me a press kit and I sat down with everyone else.

It was just like sneaking around Spartan Stadium during the old North American Soccer League (NASL) days, as a kid in the '70s. Rules were not enforced and security was scarce. Until that day, I had never been inside the Shark Tank.

At the presser, the Quakes announced the signing of Landon Donovan, who was 19 years old and on loan from Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Donovan, of course, eventually led the team through four seasons, including two MLS Cups.

For most of 2001, even with Donovan turning into the poster boy for American soccer, nobody thought the Quakes would accomplish anything after finishing the previous campaign as the league's worst team. I don't think I would have found the desire to start covering the team had I not snuck into that press conference.

Yet there I was in the Spartan Stadium press box for most of that season, looking down at what, in the '70s was Section G, where I'd grown up watching the NASL games. I'd sat in the same stadium to see the legendary George Best score the greatest goal in NASL history in July of 1981, before Landon Donovan was even born. Then there I was in 2001, watching Donovan mature into the greatest American player of his time.

My writerly predilections for epic spacetime continuum-shattering moments of clarity probably began at Spartan Stadium. I have nothing but gratitude.

Now this year the Quakes will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that 2001 championship squad. They should also celebrate the 40th anniversary of that George Best goal. I have faith they will do exactly that.