Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Week 2 - San Francisco / San Jose

San Francisco is much smaller than I had thought - fewer than 800,000 people. I certainly didn't realise San Jose (almost 1M pop.) is bigger, and that may explain why they get an MLS soccer team and San Fran itself doesn't.

The San Jose Earthquakes are one of only two MLS teams (along with Seattle Sounders) to have kept their name from the NASL (North American Soccer League). For those of you not familiar, that was the league in the 1970s that Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff & George Best played in.

The 'Quakes have gone through their fair share of hard times since then. They've had their name changed, they've disappeared for seasons at a time only to return in a different guise.....they've even been moved almost 2,000 miles away to Houston to reform as the Dynamo.

But watching them train at Santa Clara University, you would never know it. They look like a good, professional team - which isn't bad since they only (re)joined the MLS in 2008.

Darren Huckerby, the English striker who played for Newcastle, Coventry & Norwich, moved to the Earthquakes around a year ago. He told me about his experiences in the MLS so far.

"Starting to score goals straight away was really good for me" he said. "And winning the MLS Newcomer of the Year award was a real highlight."

I was particularly interested to find out what brought Darren to the MLS, and to San Jose in particular. He told me: "I thought about it when I was younger – maybe 22 or 23. I was fortunate enough to play in every division in the English leagues, and it is well documented that when I left Norwich City, I said I didn't want to play against them for another club."

He seems pretty settled in San Jose, and eager for the new season to start. But there is one negative aspect of the game that Darren would like to see changed.

"The turf pitches should be banned. Three or four of the teams here play on them, and after 16 years of playing on grass I find it difficult to adapt. They are not good for training or playing on, and in my opinion they should be banned."

Darren's team-mate and captain is more of a veteran of the MLS. Nick Garcia has played eight full seasons in the league, seven of which were with the Kansas City Wizards. He is part of a golden generation, growing up and playing alongside the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo. And he thinks the Earthquakes are well-equipped to challenge this season.

"I think we are ten times better this time around" he told me after the Earthquakes training session. "Last season, we were always talking to people, they really needed pushing. This season, we're looking for more from everyone, and I think we will get more. I know these guys can do better than last season."

So when it all comes to an end, and it's time to hang up the boots - what does an MLS player do?

"I'm quite happy to become a stay-at-home Dad!" a happy Nick told me. "Realistically, with more expansion teams coming in to the league, there will be a whole range of new roles out there. I'd love to be a part of that. Coaching is not really my cup of tea, but I think there are plenty of roles out there where I can offer something."

Before I left the sunny Santa Clara university training facilities, Nick had one last comment: "Are you going to Kansas? Try the barbecue there!!"

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