SAN FRANCISCO — There are ghosts at Kezar Stadium. The tiny sporting venue is a quaint little place nestled in the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park. Its warped wooden bleachers and nearby dilapidated pavilion with cramped locker rooms only hint at its illustrious past, when it was a near 60,000-seat bowl that once was home to the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders.
But the memories ooze out of the place, from the glory years of Y.A. Tittle’s famed “Alley-Oop” Hail Mary to the free-love grooves of Grateful Dead concerts on countless foggy summer days. On Wednesday night, hopefully another ghost was put to bed: the fate-twisted paths that have tied two MLS franchises together.
The San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo may be forever linked. The orange army, after all, is the remnants of the former Quakes dynasty after the club moved to Texas following the 2005 season. The current Dynamo roster is still littered with former Earthquakes -- in fact, six of them were on San Jose’s 2003 MLS Cup-winning squad.
The history here doesn’t need repeating. Bay Area fans saw their team moved 2,000 miles east after a failed battle to get a stadium built. They then watched in disillusionment as their favorite players were immediately embraced by a new city, for whom the new Dynamo won two championships immediately. And you wonder why there’s a natural rivalry. It’s a bitter chapter in the annals of Major League Soccer.
But Wednesday night’s friendly between old foes may have been a sign that everyone’s healing, at least a little bit. The crowd wasn’t huge -- barely more than 2,000 -- but they were respectful. That’s a far cry from the last time the Dynamo and Earthquakes exchanged pleasantries at Kezar two years ago in another preseason game.
On that day, the wounds were still raw. One of San Jose’s supporters groups led the crowd in expressing their disgust by letting the Dynamo -- their former heroes -- have it. For almost the entire 90 minutes, a good portion of the fans chanted, sang, jeered and threw all kinds of nasty insults at Houston. Some of the players recall the attacks as being far too personal.
“I loved the passion, and I totally understood,” recalled defender Richard Mulrooney, who spent six seasons in San Jose. “But it definitely got a little ugly.”
Midfielder Brad Davis, another ex-Quake, took it a little more personally. “We were utterly shocked,” he said. “Like it was our choice to leave. We were like, what the hell? Some of these guys won championships for these fans.”
Time heals all wounds, they say. It’s been five years since the old Quakes left town, and three years since they were replaced by a new expansion team. Their paths have diverged in so many ways since then. Houston has wholeheartedly embraced the Dynamo, especially the club’s Hispanic core fan base. Orange is a trendy color in Harris County, and the team -- though still resembling the old Quakes in many ways -- has its own identity, new investors and remains a perennial contender.
The new Earthquakes, meanwhile, are still a work in progress, still very much in a building mode in their third year and trying to find their own character with some old faces and some new ones. They’ve still got a stadium battle on their hands, but they’ve never been closer to landing a permanent home in the Bay Area.
The ties are still there, but the geography isn’t. Houston’s natural rival is FC Dallas, and most Quakes fans have re-focused their energy back to hating the LA Galaxy. And every year, more players who were part of that ill-fated final San Jose squad in ’05 have moved on -- guys like Dwayne De Rosario, Ricardo Clark and Alejandro Moreno are far away.
“As time goes on, the players who were around after the move and are still here in Houston become less and less,” Mulrooney pointed out. “I think that will help diminish the rivalry.”
Rivalries in sports are great things, obviously. In a still-developing league like MLS, they’re crucial. But they’ve got to be for the right reasons. Some Bay Area fans still aren’t letting go of the bitterness they feel towards the Dynamo. One told MLSsoccer.com he’d hate Houston for as long as he lives, and those orange jerseys make him “sick.” Another said that, although he still loves the former players, “The organization, they’re jerks. I’ll never respect them.”
That’s all well and good, and still understandable. Fans in both towns try to claim the Dynamo’s 2006 and ’07 titles as their own. Similarly, the current Earthquakes organization is under different ownership and management, yet it still claims the 2001 and ’03 MLS Cup titles -- as do many of the current Houston players.
But it’s time to let it all go. These are two different teams, with two new sets of challenges. Both clubs are trying to build their own stadiums and solidifying their fan base. Both just want to play soccer.
The scene at Kezar on Wednesday was a sharp contrast to February of ’08. There was no buzz of a hated old team visiting a new team. Sure, the Ultras gave the Dynamo the rude treatment, but all in all, it was just a preseason soccer game: a bunch of MLS players without names on their backs trying to impress their coaches.
“Not all is really forgotten,” Mulrooney said, “but I think things are on their way.”
It’s time to give up the ghosts and leave them with the other memories at Kezar Stadium. Besides, you’d like to think that somewhere, Jerry Garcia is a diehard Quakes fan.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.