Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes came full circle on Sunday.
The longtime Earthquake striker and Bay Area native received the loudest pre-game cheer at Sunday’s opening of Avaya Stadium, the state-of-the-art 18,000 seat soccer-specific cathedral that has been in the works in one way or another for the past eight years.
It’s no surprise that the Danville native remains a favorite with San Jose supporters, and will retire as greatest Earthquake of the MLS era. That’s an era that has seen two iterations of the San Jose club, and Wondo remains the only player on the current roster to be part of both.
The first MLS Earthquakes were originally known as the Clash, and in 1996 participated in the first game in league history, beating D.C United 1-0 in front of a record setting attendance at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium. Amongst the 31,728 fans that day: 13-year old Chris Wondolowski:
“I was in the stadium. Watching Wynalda score that goal.”
On that day Wondolowski could’ve only dreamed of suiting up for the Clash one day, but that dream came true in 2005, when the now San Jose Earthquakes selected the Chico State alum with the 40th overall pick in the Supplemental Draft.
The dream of playing professional soccer in the Bay Area was short-lived, however, when just two years removed from an MLS Cup, the club abruptly packed up and moved to Houston after attempts to secure a soccer specific stadium failed, supported by a belief that interest in San Jose was not high enough to support a professional soccer team.
The move was devastating for Wondolowski and the city of San Jose, who were not only losing a successful team, but professional soccer for the first time since 1974:
“Being from the Bay Area and having to move, having the team fold at that moment, I was devastated for the community, because it’s played such an important role in my life. You never knew if it was going to come back. I appreciate Lew Wolff and the owners bringing the team back and John Doyle and all these guys did a lot of hard work to get this team back. I was always rooting for that in 2008, even though I was in Houston.”
Professional soccer would indeed return to the South Bay when Oakland A’s owners John Fisher and Lew Wolff exercised a three-year exclusive option from MLS to develop a soccer-specific stadium and bring an expansion franchise back to San Jose. Improbably, the Earthquakes returned in 2008.
Wondolowski remained in Houston until 2009, never making a significant impact for the Dynamo while spending much of his time with the reserve squad. In an apropos twist of fate, Wondolowski was traded by Houston back to the Earthquakes in ‘09, with Wondo given a chance to revive his career for the club he supported as a boy.
Upon his return to San Jose, Wondolowski established himself as not only an MLS-caliber player, but the most prolific goal scorer in league history and a club legend, albeit for a club that still played home fixtures at Santa Clara University. All that changed for good on Sunday, with Wondolowski once again in the stadium, this time on the field, on one of the most important days in club history:
“It’s been a dream to always play for the Earthquakes and let alone be able to open a stadium. It’s something special … It’s a professional atmosphere, it’s not college. It’s yours. It’s the Earthquakes.”
That atmosphere was on display Sunday, and is not something Wondolowski has ever experienced in an Earthquakes uniform, save maybe a handful of matches at Stanford Stadium against rivals Los Angeles Galaxy.
Sunday’s raucous atmosphere was a new experience for many Quakes players, including Castro Valley’s own David Bingham, who said Avaya’s opening was incomparable to playing at Buck Shaw:
“It’s night and day. I played at Buck Shaw when I was in college, so now stepping into this facility, it’s arguably one of the best in the league, and we know that and I think the fans understand that now. I think it’s gonna be really hard for teams to come in here and take points from us.”
What makes it so difficult?
“It’s really loud, especially on the (supporters) end. It’s hard to talk lines ahead of you, even me talking to the back line is a bit difficult, but it’s definitely going to be a big home field advantage for us.”
That atmosphere can push the team to perform at a higher level, according to Wondolowski, something they seemed to do on Sunday with two goals in the opening 21 minutes:
“When you’re out on the field you definitely hear it and it pushes you. It helps push you through tough times when you’re starting to hit a wall. … I’ve been to many Warriors games, it’s a little similar to that.”
Like the bond between Stephen Curry and rabid Warriors fans that fill Oracle Arena, Wondolowski will forever share a bond with the San Jose Earthquakes and Bay Area soccer. That’s something the veteran does not take for granted:
“(The stadium) is great to have. So much excitement. It’s an honor to play here and it’s something special. We want to protect this house, because we take pride in it, we believe that it’s ours. It’s for our community and our fans. When you have a sense that it’s yours it’s more important.”
For the first time ever, Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes have a home that’s theirs alone, and nobody can ever take that away.