Heading into the 2003 season, many of the so-called experts and soccer pundits were picking the San Jose Earthquakes to finish near the bottom of the MLS standings. The Quakes started the season without veterans Wade Barrett, Joe Cannon, Jimmy Conrad and leading scorer Ariel Graziani, who had moved on to other teams. In their place were several new, unproven MLS players like Brian Ching, Brian Mullan, Pat Onstad and Todd Dunivant amongst others, who joined the team in an attempt to pick up the slack and return to the Quakes to the top of MLS.
Five games into the season, the Quakes were set to prove all of their detractors wrong after getting off to a 3-0-2 start and sitting atop the Western Conference with 11 points. A win or tie when the Eastern Conference leading Columbus Crew came to Spartan Stadium on May 14, 2003 would extend San Jose's unbeaten streak to a club record six games to start the season, giving the Quakes the best start in team history.
The match-up between the top two teams in MLS did not disappoint, as the Quakes got out to a 1-0 lead in the 30th minute on a floating Mullan shot from the right side that appeared to be a miss-hit cross before it went over Crew goalkeeper Jon Busch. But the Crew quickly countered just eight minutes later, when Brian McBride slotted a penalty kick past Pat Onstad to tie the game at 1-1.
"I remember that play," Onstad said. "I remember Craig Waibel causing a penalty for undercutting Brian McBride for what I thought was a dubious penalty."
In the second half, the Quakes once again opened up the scoring, with Ching combining with Landon Donovan to put San Jose up 2-1 in the 49th minute.
"I remember that Busch came out and it was a good one-two combination with Landon [Donovan]," Ching said. "I kind of pulled away from the defender and he slid it through and I was able to beat Busch."
The lead didn't last long, however, as Columbus tied the game at 2-2 on a Jeff Cunningham goal in the 61st minute before Jeff Agoos blasted a curving free kick from 25 yards out in the 67th minute that slipped into the left corner to give the Quakes a 3-2 lead. And when Donovan collected a pass from Manny Lagos and dribbled into the box before sending a wicked blast past Busch in the 87th minute, it appeared that the Quakes would easily go on to their fourth victory of the season and continue to extend their record start to a season.
"I thought that we had a good team going into the season, and then to start 4-0-2 really would give us some legitimacy," Ching said. "Especially when a bunch of people in the preseason predicted us to finish last."
But, as the Quakes road throughout the 2003 season would prove to be difficult, it was not that easy to close out the May 17 match against the Crew. Ross Paule headed home a Frankie Hejduk cross in the 90th minute to make the score 4-3, and the Quakes defense was forced to withstand several blistering final minute Crew attacks before securing the win and the best start in team history.
"It seemed like we were cruising at 4-2, and then they made it 4-3 late," Onstad said. "Then they also got an opportunity with time running out, so we sort of held on. But that was the first kind of game that I have been involved in that was a shootout and you felt that whoever had the last possession was going to win. It was pretty exciting, and that put us up to a 4-0-2 record and it was a great start for us. It was something that we concentrated on early in the season and I thought we did a great job with it."
The Quakes 14 points set a club record for the hottest start to a season, and even though San Jose would go on to lose their next match to Chicago, ending the unbeaten streak, the Earthquakes had quickly established themselves as the team to beat in 2003. It was a moniker that they kept right through the final day of the season, when they defeated Chicago in the MLS Cup Championship.
"It is always nice to start out the season on a good note, especially at home," Earthquakes forward Dwayne De Rosario, who did not play in the May 17 game due to an injury, said. "That sets the tone amongst yourselves and against the competition in the league. Every season you want to start out the best you can, and especially that season, we wanted to start out well because we were being doubted. I think when you start like that it proves that you are a team to beat and that people just can't come to your field and walk all over you. That was a good game to prove that we were the team to beat."
Ching agreed with De Rosario that the win meant even more than the 4-0-2 record and 14 points.
"We really felt like we had something to prove that year," Ching said. "And starting off 4-0-2 was great for us. It was a great start and it got us on a roll and we stayed on that roll all season."