Major League Soccer (MLS) has its versions of the Yankees and the Dodgers. The Red Bulls in New York; the Galaxy in Los Angeles. Star power in the east is Frenchman, Thierry Henry; David Beckham lights up Sunset Boulevard. Money talks. MLS places high value on these brands. Expectations are for winning handsomely, even dominating. The Galaxy is the reigning MLS Cup champion.
But this year, an underdog team has snapped off their golden balls. The San Jose Earthquakes are top of the MLS standings and are the first team to qualify for the playoffs with seven games to go in the regular season. You can see them play in a college campus stadium in Santa Clara, California, a humble abode that has produced some of the best soccer MLS has seen in years.
The Quakes total payroll for players' salaries is beneath the median for the league. While Beckham pulls in millions, some of the Quakes players are lucky to get fifty grand. Yet San Jose is top of the league, beating Beckham and the Galaxy twice this season, and coming from behind in so many games to win in the dying moments that fans have lost count. Never say die is San Jose's motto.
So if money is not behind the underdog's success, what is? Start with a playing squad that is bonded together with an adhesive stronger than any executive with a checkbook. These guys play for each other, they have each others backs covered. Consider it a collective. There are no prima donnas strutting around the locker room. No hierarchy of detachment.
Combine this with the man who sets the tone. Frank Yallop is the Quakes' head coach. He is one of MLS's most successful coaches winning the MLS Cup twice in the last decade. Astuteness and experience is the rub on his lamp. And it shines on his players.
Add to that the energy, the bulb of Quakes fans known as the 1906 Ultras. They are the most mental fans in MLS. A sort of wild bunch of guys and gals who have San Jose branded in their hearts. A pulsating rhythm of chanting and singing powers the atmosphere and raises the Quakes' players game. It's a pull for the Quakes and a sonic punch for opponents.
The Quakes recently announced they will be moving to a new home in San Jose in 2013. A $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium is set to break ground in October. The humble renters moving into a home they own. Call it soccer's American Dream. But before then, the life of the underdog is with San Jose in its simple stadium, and it is paying off handsomely.
Should you be out and about in Portland this week, the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival rolls into town as part of the build up to next Saturday's game between Portland and Seattle; a distinctive rivalry. Soccer film fans can catch Gringos at the Gate, a documentary on the USA/Mexico rivalry that can turn sour pretty quickly. Head further south for another film on Argentina's lethal rivalry between Boca Juniors and River Plate, a cauldron not for the faint of heart. Check out the details here.
Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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