.San Jose Earthquakes Celebrate 50 Years

San Jose’s favorite soccer team runs down its 50-year anniversary

As a club, the San Jose Earthquakes and their supporters were not just invented from scratch a few years ago. 

The current team expands on a vibrant historical body of work dating back to 1974, the original team’s first season in the old North American Soccer League (NASL), when Milan Mandaric, an electronics entrepreneur and passionate soccer fan wanted to start San Jose’s first major professional sports franchise. And he did.

Since then, the Quakes and their fans have overcome all obstacles—leagues collapsing, horrendous rebrandings, absentee ownership groups, suburban apathy, political indifference and even a franchise relocation—yet they never gave up. They kept fighting over and over again. The history simply refused to disappear.

As the team now celebrates its 50th anniversary, it became necessary for me to assemble a series of time capsules, year by year, from 1974 until now. To celebrate. To reunite the reader with history. On Feb. 12, History Press will publish the resulting book, The Unforgettable San Jose Earthquakes: Momentous Stories On and Off the Field

Having directly experienced almost all of these 50 years first hand—as a kid, a teenager, a college student, and then beginning in 2001 as a journalist—my view is that players and coaches come and go, general managers come and go, ownership groups come and go, and even leagues might come and go, but what endures is the club’s heritage, and, especially with the San Jose Earthquakes, the extended multigenerational family this club has spawned over the last half-century. No other pro soccer club in the United States can claim the gloriously idiosyncratic type of history as can the Quakes.

An earlier book of mine, The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy, provided a literary journalistic approach to the subject matter, a gonzo-in-retrospect narrative taking readers right up to the opening of PayPal Park in 2015. For that book, plenty of interviewees agreed to speak about their part in this whole journey. As far as I know, all of them enjoyed coming along for the ride.

Now with five decades of adventure spiraling back to the forefront in 2024, a new examination is needed to contemplate the grand sweep of history. Like a fault line, much of this history has slept underneath the surface of the everyday San Jose experience. It is time to normalize the story and bring it above ground for good, so that no one ever forgets.

The book almost reads like 50 Silicon Alleys columns in a row, a “seismic survey” of sorts, a “this year in Quakes history” retrospective, a nonstop cataclysmic barrage alternating between crude macro-level summary and intimate microscopic examination, between larger strokes and smaller ones, with the family lineage providing the glue. It is not a comprehensive history by any means. Little attention is given to specific players. The overall family unit comes first. 

Why? Because that’s what the Quakes story really boils down to. Family. And the San Jose family keeps growing and growing. When surveyed all at once, by holding this book in your hands, the last 50 years become a massive achievement. There is no reason why every current and former player shouldn’t feel part of something much bigger.

Which also means that this is not just a local story of successes and failures on the pitch, the palace intrigue that comes along with it all, or the various records. The story of the Quakes also includes a history of reunions and anniversaries. The club often invites former players or coaches back into town to celebrate various milestones. Sometimes it’s an entire team that comes back into town. You don’t see this with any other club in Major League Soccer. Not to this degree. The San Jose Earthquakes are pioneers in the ways American soccer clubs celebrate their history.

As everyone gets older, you’d think the reunions would get smaller, but with the Quakes, it seems like the other way around. As every season goes by, another generation of former players or coaches has another anniversary to celebrate. And it’s not just the players. Even the supporters’ groups are reaching their own milestones. Now, in 2024, everyone, whether deeply involved or somewhere on the periphery, can rightfully, legitimately celebrate 50 years of the World Game in San Jose.

A History of Reunions

Anniversaries are not new to the San Jose Earthquakes. In 1984, for example, as the old NASL was circling the drain, the first ever Quakes alumni match took place on May 12 at Spartan Stadium, a match I attended. At the time, it was clear that the Quakes were already establishing a multigenerational family. Billed as a “10th Anniversary Reunion Game,” the contest featured a team of “all-stars” that included almost everyone from the original 1974 team including Paul Child, the Demlings, Gabbo Gavric and Mani Hernandez, plus a few extra Quakes alums that had played during later seasons. George Best even showed up. That squad, coached by Gavric, faced off against the current 1984 squad, coached by Don Popovic, yet another nod to the Slavic threads running through the whole story. 

For the majority of the match, the crowd rooted for the alumni and not the current team. As I remember it, the day was an emotional one, especially with many people aware of the NASL’s imminent demise. Fans were cherishing the memories and the experiences of the last decade as much as they could. 

At this point, no other club in the league was staging alumni games. With 1984 being the eleventh Earthquakes season and with many predicting it would be the last, no one envisioned that this alumni game would be the first of many reunions over the course of the next 40 years.

Then on June 10, 1989, a “15th anniversary game” took place, pitting almost the entire original NASL Earthquakes from 1974 against members of the inaugural 1975 Portland Timbers team. In both cases, many ringers participated, including Quakes and Timbers players from subsequent years. George Best even came back over from the UK, just as he’d done for the 1984 reunion. This time, the point was to raise money for a new scholarship in the name of John Bradley, who died unexpectedly of a stroke the previous year. In the reunion game, since Chris Dangerfield achieved glory playing for both the Timbers and the Earthquakes, he played one half for each team.

In 1989, the San Jose Earthquakes were not competing in a nationwide league of any sort, yet the club, the history and multigenerational family refused to go away. As early as 1989, it became apparent that the Quakes heritage would never say die.

And it didn’t. When the current competition, Major League Soccer, inaugurated in San Jose in 1996, the new incarnation of the team was temporarily rebranded as the San Jose Clash for four years, before reclaiming the original Quakes name beginning in the 2000 season. 

Soon enough, Branham High School graduate and former NASL Quakes equipment kid Ron Gilmore put the word out and invited any former player to return yet again to Spartan Stadium for a collective reunion in 2001. He repeated the effort in 2004, for a series of events that served as the 30th anniversary reunion weekend, that is, three decades since the original debut 1974 squad, and then still yet again in 2009, for a huge banquet reunion in the San Jose Fairmont. In each case, the multigenerational Quakes family continued to grow and strengthen itself and become wiser with age, like a fine wine. 

Just a few years later, in 2014, the largest street party in San Jose soccer history unfolded in front of San Pedro Square Market. Thousands filled the streets. Former and current players addressed the crowd from the podium. Lars Frederiksen of Rancid performed a new song he wrote just for the Quakes, “Never Say Die.” To this day, the song is played at the start of every game.

Thankfully, all of these celebrations were never just about the “old days” or solely devoted to retired players from the ’70s. On the night of April 2nd, 2016, the entire 1996 San Jose Clash showed up for their own 20th anniversary reunion weekend to celebrate the inaugural MLS match, which took place in 1996, exactly 20 years earlier. Original 1996 coach Laurie Calloway, plus players like Ramiro Corrales, Eric Wynalda, Troy Dayak, Missael Espinoza, Jeff Baicher, Paul Holocher and others from that original groundbreaking squad, all took the field at PayPal Park, one by one, at halftime.

When MLS launched in San Jose in 1996, many did not expect the league to succeed. Much of the traditional American sports commentariat acted like they wanted the league to fail. The soccer haters spewed dreck from coast to coast. In any case, no one predicted MLS would even still be here 20 years later. Yet here was the San Jose team that inaugurated MLS at Spartan Stadium. And they were here, in 2016, in a new Quakes stadium, a permanent facility, PayPal Park. It was quite emotional to witness.

In righteous fashion, this event was a major milestone, whether anyone realized it or not. The history had reached another level. The current league, MLS, was now positioned to stage its own 20th anniversary weekends, and the Quakes were simply doing what they had always done anyway.

The historical body of the San Jose Earthquakes once again proved itself to be a history of reunions and anniversaries, in dimensions that no other American club could possibly duplicate. 

Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, as respected brothers in history, certainly carried tremendous cachet, but they didn’t have the multigenerational family that the Quakes seemed to have. This was a true community, a true lineage that survived every possible setback. You could see it on the faces of the 1996 team as they stood there in 2016. Even they couldn’t believe the league was still here 20 years later. It was just as emotional, if not more emotional, than the 1984, 1989, 2001, 2004, 2009 and 2012 reunions—all of which I witnessed myself. 

Just like Metallica recently said of their own career, every year is now an anniversary of something. With the Quakes it was no different. 

Then, in 2021 and 2023 respectively, the Quakes brought back the 2001 and 2003 championship squads for their respective 20-year reunions. In both cases, I was there too, looking on from the shadows. No other team in MLS could claim a similar lineage. In both cases, players from the ’70s until the current day all joined in the celebrations.

Each reunion became more intense, more celebratory, more tear-jerking, more pristine. This is exactly what any real football club would do, anywhere else in the world. The Quakes had something magical and it might be years before the rest of the US soccer landscape really understood this.

The Reunion of All Reunions

Right now, the 2024 Major League Soccer season has not even started, but the Quakes are already celebrating the club’s 50th anniversary. On Sunday Feb. 18, from 3-7pm, the club will once again transform the San Pedro Square Market area into a huge block party, just as they did for the club’s 40th anniversary in 2014. Many San Jose alumni players will attend. Historic materials will hang from the walls. Live music shall unfold. 

If everything goes as planned, Feb. 18 will be the perfect kickoff event for an entire season of golden anniversary celebrations, all of which will hit an apex during the weekend of June 27-29, when the Quakes will bring as many former players as possible back to San Jose for a grand-scale party. Everyone will attend the annual Cali Classico match at Stanford Stadium versus the LA Galaxy that Saturday, followed by the annual fireworks celebration. 

The Quakes are unique in the American soccer landscape. Any other league, especially in Europe or Latin America, is filled with much older clubs that obsessively document their histories. Major League Soccer is far too young of a league for most teams to care about such things. Which is exactly why the San Jose Earthquakes can now show everyone else the way.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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