SAN JOSE — Earthquakes president Dave Kaval has been beaming as bright and warm as the LED lighting inside new Avaya Stadium that will be given a test run Saturday.
The man who helped spearhead the $100 million project adjacent to Mineta San Jose International Airport can be forgiven for his exuberance.
The Quakes are about to say goodbye to their second-class citizenry after spending seven years in Major League Soccer”s smallest venue at 10,500-seat Buck Shaw Stadium.
The team enters a new dimension with a European-style stadium that could become the catalyst to impassion Bay Area soccer fans and help propel the Earthquakes to the upper echelon of the sport.
“We awoke a giant,” Kaval said. “We are going to be at the forefront of the conversation of soccer in America.”
Time will tell, but it appears the Quakes aren”t the only ones giddy at the prospects of the new stadium.
“We”re here to commemorate the day San Jose officially became cool,” San Jose Mayor Sam Licardo said Friday during a stadium ceremony.
For now, a limit of 10,000 season-ticket holders are expected for the “soft launch” Saturday in an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Avaya”s official unveiling is scheduled for March 22 in a sold-out home opener, presuming the league reaches a labor deal by then.
The 18,000-seat, horseshoe-shaped stadium has given the Earthquakes a real home after decades of playing in college buildings at San Jose State and Santa Clara University.
Avaya will turn soccer into a true professional sport, said Ian Russell, an assistant coach since 2008 and former Quakes midfielder when the team played at Spartan Stadium.
“You always heard the comments, ”Oh, you guys play at a college,” ” Russell recalled. “Those days are over.”
For the past seven years, the Quakes sold Buck Shaw as an “intimate” experience. But one longtime Bay Area soccer fan said, “Intimate is a euphemism for a dump. That was depressing.”
Quakes players and team officials would never characterize Buck Shaw like that. But San Jose couldn”t generate much traction while smaller markets in Kansas City, Portland and Seattle were generating a buzz with large, frenzied crowds.
The low-budget Earthquakes were something of an afterthought, reaching the playoffs only twice since re-entering the league in 2008. The new stadium already has led Quakes owners to approve the signing of two, high-priced foreigners who are expected to make the team competitive when the season begins next weekend.
“We”re an international alpha city,” Kaval said. “We”re in a big-time place, and people expect to have a big-time professional soccer team.”
Kaval said the Quakes showed potential by selling out 50,000-seat Stanford Stadium for their annual summer game. It has led team officials to say they now are in position to do as well as Kansas City and the Cascadian clubs.
“It catapults the whole organization and validates it to a level we haven”t had before,” said Chris Leitch, an Earthquakes Academy coach and one-time San Jose defender.
Jake Reid, Sporting Kansas City chief business officer, has seen what a new stadium can do.
The team has enjoyed 54 consecutive sellouts since opening 18,467-seat Sporting Park four years ago. Simultaneously, Sporting has become one of the league”s best teams.
“If you look at the K.C. story, we had less than 2,000 paid season-ticket holders,” Reid said. “We were beyond irrelevant in our own market.”
In the last two years, Sporting — formerly known as the Wizards — has become one of the league”s top markets rivaling Seattle. It has played host to an MLS All-Star game and MLS Cup, as well as U.S. national team games, including Olympic and World Cup qualifiers.
Is San Jose next?
“In a market like the Bay Area, the Earthquakes can be a mainstream, not a niche, but a mainstream pro sports team,” Kaval said.
Again, whether such a bold prediction bears out will take time.
“Our league has struggled more in the L.A.s, Chicagos and New Yorks and Bay Area,” Kaval added. “If we can show success and relevance at a major level, it shows our league has arrived.”
Cal men”s coach Kevin Grimes sees a critical mass with the Bay Area”s richly diverse populace that has strong soccer roots. He said fans want a home to experience that European atmosphere, “where people are on their feet, singing and chanting.”
Grimes hopes Avaya adds to the area”s overall history by eventually playing host to the College Cup, soccer”s version of the Final Four.
Quakes officials already are bringing the U.S. women”s team to San Jose on May 10 for a World Cup preview game. They plan to cultivate the market for other international games and work with the 49ers on premier matchups at Levi”s Stadium.
The father of Quakes star Chris Wondolowski expects to be emotional Saturday after growing up playing soccer in the East Bay when few Americans followed the sport.
Later, John Wondolowski shuttled his boys to games wherever Bay Area teams called home.
“It”s an intersection of my kids, my life, and now there is a stadium there,” the father said. “And my son is going to play in that stadium.”
That son who everyone affectionately calls “Wondo” strode into Avaya last month before joining the U.S. national team”s winter camp.
He stepped across the crisp Bandera Bermuda grass field, gazed upward at the team color-coordinated seats. Wondo felt chills when imagining what was to come.
“I”m still trying to find adjectives to describe my happiness,” he said.
Wondolowski and the Earthquakes finally are home.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
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