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San Jose Earthquakes are reborn

A's owners to buy MLS team with a history, despite franchise's move to Houston in 2005.

July 19, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Lew Wolff, who owns a large chunk of the Oakland Athletics and has been known to dabble in real estate, has a new venture going.

On Wednesday, Wolff, along with business partner and fellow A's owner John Fisher, were unveiled by Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber as the owners of the league's 14th team, the San Jose Earthquakes, which will begin playing -- again -- in 2008.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. The Earthquakes have been around in one form or another since the days when George Best played for them in the old North American Soccer League three decades ago.

They vanished when that league folded, came back briefly under the auspices of the Western Soccer League, disappeared again and then surfaced as the San Jose Clash when MLS was founded in 1996. The Clash became the Earthquakes in 2000 and, with Landon Donovan as the centerpiece and star and Frank Yallop as coach, San Jose won the league championship in 2001 and 2003.

But Donovan and Yallop eventually moved south to join the Galaxy, and in 2005, after being unable to find a financially viable solution to San Jose's ongoing problems at Spartan Stadium, the league relocated the team lock, stock and barrel to Houston.

It was the first time that MLS had moved a team.

In a savvy bit of marketing, however, the league retained the team's name, its colors and logo, thereby both promising the Bay Area that the Earthquakes would return and allowing prospective investors the chance to purchase a team with an established history and fan base and even a couple of trophies.

Wolff and Fisher bought an option from MLS for what Garber said was $20 million.

If they can get the go-ahead from the San Jose City Council, the pair plan to build a privately financed, soccer-specific stadium on land near San Jose International Airport. The targeted opening date for the proposed 18,000- to 20,000-seat stadium is 2010.

Until then, the Earthquakes will play in a temporary venue that has yet to be determined. Wolff said negotiations were underway with several possible sites.

He said it had been Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz and Tim Leiweke, AEG's chief executive, who in a roundabout way had prodded him into considering MLS as an investment opportunity.

"Three or four years ago, Tim Leiweke asked me to attend a game down at the Home Depot Center as a guest in Mr. Anschutz's box and sit behind him," Wolff said. "He's always been quite a quiet person. I was sitting behind him watching this game and he was extremely animated.

"It surprised me and I thought, 'There must be something to this game that is really intriguing.' I called my partner, John Fisher, and said, 'You know, we ought to start taking a real look at soccer.'"

Fisher's subsequent visit to the 2006 World Cup in Germany provided the clincher, with Fisher, according to Garber, strolling around Germany with an American flag painted on his head. A true fan was born.

The end result is that California's best soccer rivalry, dormant for almost two years, or at least supplanted by the somewhat tamer Galaxy-Chivas USA substitute, will be revived next season.

In other developments Wednesday, on the eve of today's MLS All-Star game, Garber said the 2008 All-Star game will be played in Toronto, where the league's first Canadian team has sold out every home game.

That example, coupled by the huge turnouts for matches at the Under-20 World Cup this month, has caused MLS to seriously consider increasing its footprint in Canada.

Vancouver was among 13 cities listed alphabetically by Garber as being under varying levels of consideration for future expansion, with the league intending to add two more teams by 2010. The other cities were Atlanta, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, Seattle and St. Louis.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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