December 15, 2005 is a date etched in the mind of Houston Dynamo assistant coach Wade Barrett. It was the day Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced that the San Jose Earthquakes franchise, coaches and contracted players, including Barrett, would relocate to Houston for the 2006 season.
Few of those players knew anything about the Texan city that would be their new home in just a few weeks. The group had won the MLS championship under Frank Yallop’s management in 2001 and 2003 and finished the 2005 regular season with the league’s best record under Dominic Kinnear, Yallop’s successor and a Bay Area native.
“The wives and families got to know each other better because we were helping each other through the process of moving and helping each other when we got to Houston,” Barrett told The Soccer Observer.
“You’re not forced into that kind of interaction unless something drastic like that happens,” Barrett said. “I really do think it helped bring our team closer together on and off the field.”
Anschutz Entertainment Group, the team’s owners, had been frustrated in its attempts to build a soccer-specific stadium for the Earthquakes. Simultaneously, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority CEO Oliver Luck had been lobbying to bring a soccer team to the country’s fourth-largest city. That offered a solution to AEG’s dilemma.
“All the talks about us not having a stadium in San Jose got old,” Dwayne De Rosario told The Soccer Observer. “At the time we were like ‘If we’re going to move, let’s just move.’ “
De Rosario scored the winning goals in the 2001 and 2007 MLS Cup Finals. He left the team after the 2008 season to join Toronto F.C., his hometown club. Fittingly, he will be at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium on opening night Saturday albeit as captain of D.C. United.
“It brought the families together closer,” De Rosario said. You heard about this area, that area, where people were living. Everyone just reached out to ask if they needed anything or needed any help.
“The guys in the team really came together and it helped us in the play-offs,” he said. “What we overcame in such a short time, if we could overcome that we could overcome anything.”
The suddenness of San Jose’s departure left little time for the Earthquakes players to become fearful of what lay ahead. Kinnear, Barrett and goalkeeper Pat Onstad hopped on a plane within hours of Garber’s announcement for an introductory press conference outside Houston’s City Hall the following day. Pre-season training was also scheduled to start at the end of January.
“I had about 24 hours to feel sorry for myself,” Onstad told The Soccer Observer. “My wife and I had two children at the time and we’d settled nicely in San Jose and loved the area. To uproot families and the ties and social networks that people had developed was difficult, but unfortunately that’s part of North American sports.”
Onstad, who will also be present Saturday as an assistant coach with D.C. United, recalls being impressed by the enthusiastic crowd of fans when he arrived at City Hall.
“You could see the city was hungry for a soccer team,” said Onstad, citing the support drummed up by Luck, who became the Dynamo’s first President, and local soccer commentator Glenn Davis.
‘It all kind of came together on that day when we arrived and it was a pretty special moment,” Onstad said. “You knew it was going to be a success. Fortunately we delivered right off the bat too.”
Luck knew he had secured a great team for Houston, but there was no guarantee that their success would continue. Star forward Landon Donovan had returned to Bayer Leverkusen, his parent club in Germany, after the 2004 season only to pitch up at San Jose’s rival Los Angeles Galaxy within months. The U.S. forward inspired L.A. to the 2005 title, scoring twice against his former side in the Western Conference semi-finals.
Still, the nucleus of that successful San Jose roster moved south: Kinnear on the bench; Onstad in goal; captain Barrett and enforcer Eddie Robinson in defense; Brad Davis, Ricardo Clark, De Rosario and Brian Mullan across the midfield; and Brian Ching leading the attack. Houston’s embrace helped them settle quickly and regain the championship.
“The fans just got behind us,” Ching told The Soccer Observer. “The whole city just got behind us.
“We had very passionate fans in San Jose, but it seemed like we were a second-tier sport,” Ching said. “Here we had the media coverage, newspaper coverage, full support not only from our fans but from the city.
‘I think all of that made us feel comfortable.”
Saturday’s home opener against D.C. United will be particularly special for Ching following his off-season departure to Montreal Impact via the expansion draft and his subsequent trade back.
“I’ve never been on a franchise that’s had its own stadium, a place to call home,” Ching said. “To be able to be a part of the inaugural season in the stadium is something I’ve always dreamed about since I got into the league.”
Ching’s mother, half-sister and elder brother will be among the 22,000 sell-out crowd Saturday, watching as the Dynamo captain leads his franchise onto its own field for the first time in its history. Davis will be in the line behind him, and De Rosario opposite him for the pre-game coin toss. Kinnear, Barrett and Onstad will be on the two team’s benches, and Robinson, now part of the Dynamo’s front office, will be watching from the stands.
“They’re a big reason why this franchise is successful,” Ching said. “The 2006 and 2007 teams and the guys in San Jose started the foundation for what the Dynamo has become.
“This stadium is going to be a source of pride for all those guys.”