The San Jose Earthquakes name has two intertwined origin stories—one, of course, goes back to the South Bay’s NASL soccer roots when the San Jose franchise was founded in 1974, but the other fast forwards a quarter of a century to 1999, when the winners of MLS’s first-ever game, the San Jose Clash, decided to look forward by looking backward.
Johnny Moore, who joined the franchise in its inaugural year as an assistant general manager as well as a player, attributes the original Earthquakes nickname to the team’s first GM, Dick Berg. Berg came from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers determined to not only base a team in San Jose, but to specifically brand it as a San Jose team as the South Bay began to transform into the present-day Silicon Valley with the likes of Lockheed and NASA.
Moore wanted to learn how to run a soccer team, hence his unusual double duty; he remembers that Berg hired him on his first day, and they swapped out beds for desks in a San Jose Hyatt hotel room to create the team’s first office.
Though legend has it that the Earthquakes name came from a contributor to a contest held by the San Jose Mercury-News, Moore recalls, “I honestly believe that Dick came up with the name Earthquakes himself as we were going through all the names. Teams those days had very masculine names, like Raiders, 49ers, Warriors, Rams—a name like the Earthquakes was completely out of left field. When I heard it, I said, ‘No. There’s no way in the world.’ Dick said to me, ‘Johnny, I’m telling you, everybody’s gonna hate it, and everyone’s gonna scream about it. The press is going to write about it, and we’re going to create a bigger splash about it then we would any other way.’ And he was absolutely right.”
Moore recalls that Berg also correctly predicted, “By the time we play our first game, we’ll be known as the Quakes instead of the Earthquakes.”
Though San Jose was awarded one of the 10 initial MLS franchises, the team’s initial Clash name, logo, and branding was a collaborative effort between the league and Nike, and the team was league-owned for much of its early history.
By 1999, Kraft Sports Group had stepped in to operate the Clash, in what Tom Neale, the team’s director of business operations that year, termed a “lease with an option to buy.”
“There were looking for a marketing shot in the arm,” Neale notes. “San Jose was rich in soccer heritage, had a knowledgeable fan base, and had great equity in the Earthquakes name. But the team wasn’t leveraging that, and when we discussed it, it was clear that going back to San Jose’s soccer roots, and having a name that resonated instead of an arbitrary name, was best.”
Though MLS wanted to distinguish itself from NASL by creating all-new team brands at its inception, the Quakes officially became the first MLS team to hearken back to a NASL franchise name in an October 27, 1999 launch event. As Neale recalls, players participated in a ½-mile torch relay that led to a downtown logo unveiling ceremony.
The Mercury-News, in its day-after coverage, wondered about naming the team for a disaster. GM Lynne Meterparel responded with an answer suggesting they’d anticipated this might be coming. “People in California, and especially in this area, feel earthquakes every single day. It's part of life here. It creates a community that is prepared, that works together to conquer the odds. That's exactly what you want to do with a team on the field.''
The Mercury-News article also included comments from Commissioner Don Garber, then in his first year leading the league. He noted that, since the Clash lacked name recognition and their fans couldn’t quite connect the name with its scorpion logo, the relaunch was a positive move. As he said at the event, “It's like an onion: We're peeling it all apart and then putting it back together in a way that works better for us.''
Though the team had a rough first year as the Quakes in 2000, the team transitioned to a new ownership group in 2001, Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment (which owned another San Jose team, the NHL’s Sharks), won the rights to Landon Donovan in the 2001 allocation lottery, and won the first of its two MLS Cups that year, beating down-state rivals LA Galaxy to further fuel one of MLS’s best rivalries, which will resume on Saturday in the MLS Heineken Rivalry Edition Especial (10 pm ET, Univision).
The Earthquakes franchise did leave San Jose after the 2005 season, transforming into the Houston Dynamo. But the Earthquakes name stayed behind, and when San Jose was awarded an expansion franchise for the 2008 season, there was no doubt as to what the new team would be called.