For Quakes, every player counts

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officially on the team, but with no chance in this lifetime to be summoned into a match -- at least he'll have a place in the team photo and a bio in the media guide to prove his signing.

That's cool and all, but what really made the sweepstakes stand out was how the team allowed Pate to be presented with a jersey with his name and number (29, of course) emblazoned on it during a faux contract signing ceremony that took place on Monday.

"First thing Alexi said was, 'If you're better than any of the other 28 players, we're in trouble,'" said Pate on Tuesday. "I suppose I could have been insulted, but I'm realistic about my shape -- kind of classic 'chubby hubby' -- and the rest of the players had better be better than me! Anyway, I certainly didn't take it as a slight."

Pate is hardly one of those former soccer players who relives his glories from his club days and high school ball when he gets a couple of pints in him at the pub or during all those nights at Spartan Stadium. His soccer career actually lasted all but a year. After starting as a promising young 8-year-old, he hung up the boots at nine. While he ceremoniously made a return to the pitch some 23 years later to play in an indoor tournament in Scotts Valley last year, Pate's interaction with the sport is mostly in a non-participation role as a fan.

While others have called for a new soccer-specific facility for the Earthquakes, Pate doesn't want his club to change a thing. It's all he knows, for one thing, as his only other soccer travels have been up the road at Stanford for the San Jose-D.C. United/Women's World Cup semifinal match (between the U.S. and Brazil) doubleheader on July 4, 1999, and for the men's national team's friendly against Honduras at Safeco Field in Seattle back in March 2002.

"Those stadiums were nice enough, and I believe the hype that [The Home Depot Center] is really nice, but it's really not like Spartan, where the front rows are practically on the field," said Pate, who works as a CAD engineer in the semi-conductor industry. "I know we don't always get the best attendance in San Jose, but I think the fans are just closer to the game here. And the cramped field size helps pump up the action as well; part of the reason other teams don't like to play here so much."

Pate's best moment at Spartan is definitely one that is shared by many Earthquake followers. It was being on hand for the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal series with Los Angeles in 2003, affectionately titled "The Game." Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Pate was late getting to the stadium that night and didn't have to suffer through the agony of seeing the visitors score two goals within the first 13 minutes of that match before the epic comeback too place.

"To go from walking into a 2-0 deficit when I got in, to jumping up and down in total chaos while (Rodrigo) Faria did the celebration limbo," he said, "there's nothing like it."

Perhaps. But something tells me that his experience on April 2 will surpass anything he's experienced as a fan thus far, as his wife Amy and young son Theo will be able to watch him take his place alongside the likes of Brian Ching, Pat Onstad and Brian Mullan. And should the San Jose players all come down with the flu unexpectedly, Pate is ready to honor his new contract.

"If I've got to suit up, I can offer the element of surprise," he said. "After all, no club has seen my tape, so they can't prepare ahead of time. Plus, I can throw caution points to the wind. Wait, the refs aren't gonna read this, are they?"

Probably not. They can't see, read or tell time, right?

Right now, Pate's biggest worry isn't about how his jersey will fit -- "I'll have to suck in my belly a bit" -- or whether Eddie Robinson is going to make him "shoot the boot" as part of rookie hazing. Instead, his mind is on the 2005 Earthquakes and their chances in the Western Conference. With several of the team's top players from the two championship runs in 2001 and 2003 gone, he's anxious to see how this season plays out.

"With big changes in every area except the goal, it could go like 2000, or it could go like 2003," he said. "I'm heartened by their preseason play -- kind of a rough start, but they've been doing great, and not just from the big names. It's really looking good so far, but I haven't been following the other teams at all. At this point, I think it's not unreasonable to say we'll go to the (conference) semis at least -- when you consider we made it last year despite our up and down season. I don't want to talk about that second game vs. Kansas City.

"I think this batch of players will continue that fighting spirit that's kind of become the Quakes' trademark since 2001."

And with the signing of Pate, the Quakes start another winning tradition of their own.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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