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Aftershock alert!

Quakes are back -- and here's what it means for MLS

Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 3:17PM; Updated: Tuesday July 17, 2007 5:11PM
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Eddie Robinson, Ricardo Clark and Dwayne De Rosario all moved to Houston when the Earthquakes became the Dynamo in 2006.
Eddie Robinson, Ricardo Clark and Dwayne De Rosario all moved to Houston when the Earthquakes became the Dynamo in 2006.
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Let's get ready to rumble -- again. The San Jose Earthquakes are coming back for the 2008 season of Major League Soccer, this time as a new expansion team.

According to a source with knowledge of the deal, Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff and his ownership group will be a guest of MLS Commissioner Don Garber at Thursday's All-Star game outside of Denver, and the official announcement will likely come at Garber's annual state of the league press conference on Wednesday. Wolff can now exercise his option to start his expansion franchise for the '08 season.

While executive vice president of Earthquakes Soccer David Alioto would neither confirm or deny the deal, he said: "Should we begin activation for the 2008 season we will immediately start the search for a technical director and a head coach."

The long view is this: MLS is nowhere near the cash cow of the NFL or Major League Baseball, but it is healthy and isn't going away any time soon. Besides the $100 million sponsorship deal with Adidas and the lucrative broadcasting rights sold to ESPN and Fox, the proof is in the slow, calculated growth: The 13-team league will expand to 14 next season, which will balance the uneven schedule and finally put a club back in the fifth-largest media market in the country.

The San Francisco Bay Area had been without a team since Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owners of the previous Earthquakes, moved the two-time MLS Cup champs to Houston in '05 after abandoning its quest to get a soccer-specific stadium built.

For Wolff, who purchased his option to start a team a year ago, the deal with the league was the same: Build it and they will come. Almost every team has either built or is moving toward its own dedicated stadium, which will eliminate the pathetic sights of half-filled football stadiums that normally seat 60,000 -- a number MLS knows is out of reach.

Then the rules changed. From what sources have told me, MLS has been more or less embarrassed that the Bay Area has been without a team this long -- the ready-made fan base sure is nice, but let's face it, the sponsorship dollars to be had from the second coming of the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley has everyone licking their lips. That's a big part of why the league budged from its insistence that the stadium come first (as first reported by SI.com in May).

"Getting back to San Jose has always been the league's No. 1 target," Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas recently told me. "There are plenty of other possibilities on the table in terms of cities, but that was where they wanted to be." And Lalas would know -- he was the old Quakes' GM for two years.

But it also has a lot to do with Wolff, who may very well be the model owner, the type of businessman the league will insist upon in all future expansion projects. Wolff is a real-estate developer based in Los Angeles, but has a long history as a shrewd deal-maker in the San Jose area -- his crown jewel is the posh Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose.

Wolff bought the A's in 2005, and it soon became clear to him that he wouldn't be able to build a new stadium for his team in Oakland because of the city's hesitancy to give up public land. (Much of this is thanks to Raiders owner Al Davis -- read this column I wrote last November.)

So Wolff made a deal happen in Fremont, 28 miles south of Oakland. It's not finalized yet, but he and his principal partner, John Fisher, will probably get $400 million Cisco Field built over the next few years -- without a cent of public money and free and clear of any kind of political quagmire. That kind of resourcefulness made Wolff very attractive to the league. Then the tipping point came last month.

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