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The San Jose Earthquakes, one of four teams in the Western Division of the North American Soccer League, defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps the other night in San Jose 3-1—not a headline-making event in the world of sport. The soccer was hardly faultless, and the result settled no important issue. What did matter was that the game was played before a crowd of 17,670—an astonishing number for a U.S. soccer game—which enjoyed itself enormously and came within 400 of filling to capacity ancient, decaying Spartan Stadium, home of the San Jose State Spartans.
The Earthquakes were in second place in the NASL West and, with three games to go in the regular season, were fighting for a wild-card spot in the playoffs. But the crowd was not on hand just because of the race. San Joseans came out on this particular steaming, humid evening—as they had for most of the season—because the Quakes were their very own major league team, their first and only major league team, and San Jose had taken them to heart. But San Jose was not the only team beloved in the NASL West that night. At the very same hour up in Seattle, the Sounders were host to the division-leading Los Angeles Aztecs, and in soccer terms, their crowd was astonishing, too—14,876, the third straight Sounder home-game sellout.
The man who got major league professional soccer to San Jose is Milan Mandaric, a 35-year-old transplanted Yugoslavian. Mandaric played soccer at something less than world-class level at home; his real skills were managerial. His father ran a small machine shop in Novi Sad, 45 miles from Belgrade. As a child he helped out, and then took a degree in mechanical engineering. At 21 he opened his own machine shop, which was so successful that he was eventually invited to leave the country. He had 200 employees, and Tito's government frowned on privately owned businesses employing more than 10. Mandaric split his company into 20 companies hiring 10 each, but the subterfuge did not work for long and he had to split. In 1965, when he was 26, he went to Zurich and established a metal-working plant there. It was beginning to show a profit when he came to the U.S. for a vacation in 1969 and discovered free enterprise American-style.
"Here is free," Mandaric said the other day in Saratoga, Calif., sitting on his patio, overlooking a swimming pool and a tennis court. "No restrictions. People respect your ability. You can do what you can do."
He decided that the most promising field in California was the manufacture of electronic components, about which he knew absolutely nothing. Nevertheless he took the $40,000-odd he had from the sale of his Swiss company and in five years built the Lika Corporation—named for the district in which he was raised in Yugoslavia—to a firm worth some $15 million.
"He's a charger," says Dick Berg, who is the Quakes' general manager and a major factor in the team's early success. "He has immense charm, immense ability to make people do what he wants them to do."
San Jose was (and is) a city with an inferiority complex. Located 50 miles south of San Francisco, it is too far away to be a bedroom suburb and too close to have its own identity. In years past, people who lived in San Jose seemed to find it necessary to identify themselves geographically as coming from "a little bit south of San Francisco." The success of the Quakes has already changed that. Now, natives say " San Jose" the way people who live in Green Bay might say " Green Bay."
"The reason I insisted that the club be located in San Jose was that there are too many major league clubs in San Francisco, and the people in San Francisco are blas�," says Berg. "In the San Jose area there are a million and a half people looking for something like this. I didn't want us to be the last team in San Francisco. I wanted this club to be No. 1. And it is."
Mandaric outbid two groups for the franchise, but the established owners in the league had assumed that he would situate in San Francisco or Oakland, which would be good for prestige if not for the gate.