Freedman: Time to give up the ghosts

San Jose, Houston must put the past behind them

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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 its 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
L.A. 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.
His “Throw-Ins” column appears every Thursday.