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What now for Columbus? Learning from the Earthquakes' relocation (and return)

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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The warning signs

Earthquakes: San Jose fans always knew they were on shaky ground. They had a caretaker owner and no clue what might happen if that owner tired of the task. The first such sign that was occurring followed the 2003 MLS Cup triumph, when reports surfaced that Club America was interested in buying the Quakes, and general manager Johnny Moore resigned.

AEG was looking at San Antonio, more so than Houston, by 2004, and word got out that summer. In August, the company gave Soccer Silicon Valley a 30-day window to find someone willing to spend $10 million for the club. That deadline passed without fanfare, and AEG, claiming losses of $20 million since taking over the club, promised just one more season as the year came to an end.

Crew: Supporters were concerned about the club's future as soon as Precourt, a venture capitalist, took charge. He was asked if he planned to move the team and said no, that he was “very committed to Columbus,” had “all the resources we need,” and could “see a clear path of success” in Ohio's capital city.

He's found the reality couldn't match the rhetoric. He gave a couple of interviews expressing the need to get out of Crew Stadium -- to Austin, perhaps -- then sent out a statement and held a conference call with media as the news exploded through the U.S. soccer community.

Precourt's announcement included a challenge to Columbus officials, Crew supporters and the community to show over the next year that they are committed to club and will do what's required to save it. Without a new stadium, that likely won't be enough.

The decision

Earthquakes: After the Supporters' Shield-winning Quakes were upset by former club icon Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs, MLS announced that AEG had 30 days to decide if it was going to move the club to Houston. The league was committed to a team in the nation's fourth-largest city, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber promised an expansion team if the Earthquakes stayed put.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

No problem. SVS&E, its officials privately acknowledged, was going to buy the club and build a stadium. Two weeks later that was dead, all about stadium financing, and the announcement that the team was, indeed, headed to Houston was made in mid-December. The Quakes' name, colors, logo and history would remain behind in San Jose. Technically, Houston was getting its expansion team.

Crew: Some believe Precourt has already decided that the Crew will play in Austin in 2019, but anything official -- either way -- will wait until next year, likely after the season is done.

The fallout

Earthquakes: Garber told Quakes fans that a new Earthquakes team would arrive “in due time,” and there was immediate word that Oakland A's owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher were interested. They reached an agreement the following May with MLS on an exclusive option to develop a soccer-specific stadium and purchase the club, and the deal was completed 14 months later. The new Quakes would kick off in 2008.

By then, Wolff and Fisher were focused on building a privately funded stadium across the street from San Jose's airport, at a site accessible by BART/Caltrain and via two major freeways. Preliminary designs were presented in September 2009, the city approved the project six months later, and ground was broken in October 2012.

The club played in a makeshift, 10,525-seat stadium at Santa Clara University -- twice reaching the MLS playoffs and winning another Supporters' Shield in 2012 -- until 18,000-seat Avaya Stadium opened in 2015. Fisher spent $100 million to make it happen.

The team in Houston, called the Dynamo after an outcry when the nickname was announced as Houston 1836, won the next two MLS Cup titles, then reached the final again in 2011 and 2012. Hometown boy Dominic Kinnear returned from Texas to take charge of the Quakes in 2015 but was dismissed in 2017 and has joined Sigi Schmid's staff with the hated Galaxy.

Crew: Soccer Silicon Valley's efforts to unite the fan base played a big role as San Jose got its Quakes back, a lesson that ought to spur Crew faithful into action. The landscape is different now, with more cities and potential ownership groups angling for expansion teams, and the Bay Area is a much larger market with far more professional sports teams. We saw how that paid off.

Columbus' future is more uncertain than San Jose's was the day the Quakes left.

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