As San Jose Earthquakes players went through practice Wednesday — with the uncommon backdrop of snow-covered hills in full view to the east — club president Jared Shawlee contemplated soccer's striking momentum in the Bay Area.
Less than nine months ago, nearby Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara landed a coveted role as one of the host sites for the 2026 World Cup. In January, word filtered out that the Bay Area is in line to land an expansion franchise in the National Women's Soccer League.
Use a shorter-term lens, and Earthquakes-hosted viewing parties for the '22 World Cup were a big hit in downtown San Jose in December. Saturday night's home opener is sold out at PayPal Stadium. The Earthquakes, beyond their annual home game at Stanford Stadium (July 1), also will play one game this season at Levi's (May 6), with big crowds expected for both contests.
"It's really an exciting time," Shawlee said. "The 2026 World Cup is going to be a gravitational force for this sport in this region."
Still, there's a caveat.
If the Earthquakes want to capitalize on these big-picture landmarks, they need to do their part. And winning, a prerequisite on the crowded Bay Area sports landscape, has been a daunting chore for the Quakes in recent years.
They finished last in the Western Conference in 2022, at 8-15-11. They haven't posted a winning season since 2013 and have made the playoffs only twice in the past 10 years (which includes their appearance in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when all MLS teams qualified). Their two MLS Cup titles were a long time ago (2001 and '03).
So the sport's bigger-picture momentum can carry the Quakes only so far, as general manager Chris Leitch fully understands.
"It's a soccer-rich area, and the fandom of the sport has only continued to grow and grow and grow," Leitch said. "The last piece is putting a team on the field that our fans can be proud of and come out and support. ...
"I think we have a really good fan base — they just need to see a winning team on the field. Our players and our new staff, we all recognize that. So we're hell-bent on making sure we're creating a winning culture."
The Quakes boast a sleek, modern stadium in the shadow of San Jose's airport, even if PayPal has a modest capacity of 18,000. That was more than enough to accommodate last year's average attendance of 15,260, which ranked 26th out of 28 MLS teams.
Atlanta United was No. 1, averaging more than 47,000 fans per game. Last Saturday's season opener, in which Atlanta beat the Earthquakes 2-1, drew 67,538 people to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, also home of the NFL's Falcons.
Again, the best way for San Jose to turn soccer interest into sustained soccer attendance: win more often. To that end, the Earthquakes begin 2023 with a new head coach in Luchi Gonzalez.
He guided FC Dallas to consecutive playoff appearances in 2019 and '20, then was fired after missing the playoffs in 2021. He spent last year as an assistant coach on the U.S. men's national team, which advanced out of World Cup group play before falling to the Netherlands in the round of 16.
Gonzalez, in speaking to reporters at Wednesday's media day event, struck a straightforward, even-handed tone. He spoke of his pride in how the Quakes played hard in a hostile environment Saturday in Atlanta, and he also expressed his frustration with the final score.
"We want to be accountable," Gonzalez said. "We're disappointed with the result."
Leitch, the general manager, realizes winning is really the only way to earn attention in the Bay Area. It's a jam-packed market with a run of wild success over the past 13 years: four NBA championships for the Warriors, three World Series titles for the Giants, two Super Bowl appearances and other deep playoff runs for the 49ers, and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance by the nearby Sharks.
So if the Earthquakes post losing records year after year, it's easy to become lost in the shuffle. Leitch acknowledged the Bay Area is a challenging market in that respect.
"Let's not lower our standard or expectation, let's raise it so we're one of those winning teams," he said. "I do think soccer is different, because the youth is playing it exponentially more than those other sports. Our sport is becoming a lot more popular not just globally but also here in this country. I'd like to think soccer will continue to rise."
As they worked out Wednesday — under crisp, sunny, windy conditions — the Earthquakes flowed with optimism. They're only 0-1, after all, amid the anticipation for Saturday night's home opener against Vancouver.
They also have some new players this season, including Jonathan Mensah, a 6-foot-2 defender who was a mainstay for Columbus the past six seasons (155 starts). Mensah helped the Crew win the 2020 MLS Cup championship.
Now he's in San Jose, unexpectedly gazing at snow-topped hills/mountains through the open end of his new team's stadium.
"It's beautiful," Mensah said. "I haven't seen this in a while — being in Ohio, I didn't see mountains at all. So it's good."
Reach Ron Kroichick: email@example.com; Twitter: @ronkroichick
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