Why Oakland Roots vs. San Jose was the “anti-John Fisher game”

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the U.S. Open Cup (USOC) match between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Oakland Roots drifted into second-half stoppage time, a chant went up that was unmistakably directed at Quakes and Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher.

“F— John Fisher!” [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap]. ” F— John Fisher!” [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap].

The invective started among the Oakland supporters, who also brought banners and t-shirts with a simple “SELL” message, with many still seething at the Major League Baseball team’s proposed move to Las Vegas. The chant permeated to a few other sections of PayPal Park as well, not that Fisher was around to hear it — a Quakes staffer indicated that the team’s owner wasn’t in attendance, though it was unconfirmed. No matter — directing anger at Fisher, it would appear, is now a multisport endeavor. That San Jose prevailed 1-0 certainly added to the Oakland fans’ sense of aggrievement.

There’s no shortage of reasons as to why Fisher is Public Enemy No. 1 in the San Francisco Bay Area. His decision to relocate the A’s to Vegas, after years of seeming to neglect both the team and its fans, is top of the list, though Fisher’s stewardship of the Earthquakes hasn’t won him any friends, either. Aside from the lightning-in-a-bottle campaign in 2012, when the “Bash Brothers era” Quakes won the Supporters’ Shield, San Jose hasn’t been any kind of threat to win a title. Their best finish since that memorable campaign was sixth in the Western Conference.

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For years, San Jose’s roster construction involved veteran U.S. forward Chris Wondolowski, bubble gum and bailing wire; outwardly, at least, the team seems content to play for the last few playoff spots rather than become a league power. Fisher’s recent critique of PayPal Park, a venue that was built during his tenure and which he said is outdated compared to other recently constructed venues in MLS, cemented the impression of an owner riding the coattails of other, more ambitious MLS clubs. All told, the Quakes have reached the playoffs in just five of the past 16 years, and this season looks no better. After 11 league games, San Jose is propping up MLS with a 2-8-1 record.

(The Quakes didn’t make either Fisher or team president Jared Shawlee available for an interview.)

The USOC should at least provide San Jose with a much-needed break from the drudgery of the season. It is the longest running soccer tournament in the U.S., with its first final having been contested in 1914. Only war and the coronavirus pandemic have stopped it from being held. Like many other cup competitions around the globe, it allows lower-division teams to go up against the big boys of the top flight — in this case, MLS. So when the draw for the USOC’s round of 32 was announced back on April 18, matching up the Quakes and the Roots, the Fisher connection became an instant talking point.

Slowly ripping off the bandage

The Roots — along with the city’s women’s team, the Oakland Soul — are attempting to stem what has been a sporting exodus from Oakland. The Golden State Warriors departed the city’s Oracle Arena following the 2018-19 season, though at least they continue to call the Bay Area (and the San Francisco-based Chase Arena) home. The Raiders decamped for Las Vegas later that same year, though the move had officially been in the works since 2017. Following an announcement that the A’s will play the 2025 season in Sacramento prior to its move to Las Vegas, the current MLB campaign will be the team’s last in Oakland.

Jorge Bejarano is the founder and president of the Roots supporters group, Los Roots. He remembers drumming at A’s games for years, but has moved his sports fandom to the Roots. For him, the departure of the A’s is a case of the last cut — rather than the first — being the deepest. “We cannot wait till [Fisher] is out of Oakland. It sucks that he’s dragging the A’s with him,” he said. “And I think that the band-aid has been ripped so slowly that we’re just ready for the final tug, like ‘just get out of here,’ you know what I mean?

“I think the fight is no longer happening on trying to change his mind or keep the team here. It’s like we’d much rather rebuild from zero, than to have him still be an owner in the Bay Area.”

Roots fans have a sympathetic ear in some of their Quakes counterparts. Dan Margarit is one of the founders of the San Jose Ultras, and he recalled how the original MLS iteration of the Quakes was relocated to Houston ahead of the 2006 season, with San Jose, oddly, getting an expansion team in 2008. “We support their cause in regards to the team moving,” he told ESPN about the Oakland fans. “We’ve been through it with the Quakes, so I hate when they relocate [teams] like that.”

Starting from scratch

The Roots have done what they can to fill the void of the departed teams — the Raiders in particular. The Roots train at the Raiders’ old practice facility in Alameda where the lollipop-shaped control tower from nearby Oakland Airport can be seen from a distance. The site still has many of the trappings of an NFL team, which is why several national teams made use of it when they came to town.

As much as the team has tried to make the building home — including artwork from local artists like Asaad Bruno and Ryan Kelder — the ghostlike vibe of the Raiders can be felt. One of the garage doors still sports the Raiders’ logo, as does some of the flooring in the gym area.

The plan, which is still being finalized with local politicians, is that next season, the Roots and Soul will play games at the Oakland Coliseum, as they await construction of a 10,000-seat venue in one of the adjacent parking lots. Talks with the City of Oakland, Alameda County and the Joint Powers Authority are ongoing, but headed in the right direction.

The Roots organization is well aware of where it fits in the local sporting landscape, but from its inception, the Roots have sought to be more than a soccer team, one that’s embedded in the community. The club boasts 5,000 fans in its ownership group, though the total stake amounts to a small sliver — less than 1% — of the organization’s equity. There are celebrity owners that have invested more, among them former NFL star and Cal running back Marshawn Lynch, Green Day guitarist/lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, former Warrior players Shaun Livingston and Gary Payton II, and former MLS player and current MLS television analyst Calen Carr. There are community partnerships like the one with Coaching Corps, an Oakland-based nonprofit that recruits, trains and supports youth coaches.

“[The Roots] started out with this idea of connecting the magic of Oakland and the power of sport to create this incredible social impact,” said club chairman Steven Aldrich. “And I think that has been our mission literally from day one, guiding all of the decisions that we make, the players that we sign, the way that we work [in the community,] whether it’s the local school district, local nonprofits, or the local investors we brought in the community around last year.

“All of that stuff is, ‘How do we make this an asset for the community more broadly?’ And that permeates literally everything that we touch.”

While Tuesday’s USOC match marks the first time the two teams have squared off in a competitive match, the sense of competition is already there. This has increased now that the Quakes’ reserve team, The Town, will play their games in Moraga, Calif., 13 miles northeast of Oakland. The Quakes insist there is nothing strategic about the team’s location, but the Roots feel its placement is no accident. This sentiment is reinforced by the Quakes organization calling the team The Town, one of Oakland’s nicknames. Either way, the reality is that another professional soccer competitor has been placed on the Roots’ doorstep.

The City of Oakland has been more than happy to embrace the Roots and Soul. As Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield sat in one of the field-level suites at PayPal Park, she took a diplomatic approach when asked to compare the city’s relationship with the Roots to the one it has with the A’s. Yet she still made her point clear. “To be able to come and enjoy a sport, meet a new friend, and hopefully see them in the city, maybe in your neighborhood, I think it’s been really instrumental in bringing the city together and in a new way with the new sport,” she said. “I think that the other teams were for their time, but as Oakland is innovative and creative, soccer is the new frontier.”

However, the Quakes aren’t the only team that is struggling. With the Roots off to a 2-5-1 start, Oakland parted ways with manager Noah Delgado back on April 28. Into the breech stepped Gavin Glinton, a native of nearby Livermore who grew up watching the Quakes and later played for the team. A road tie against San Antonio last weekend was a step in the right direction, and while Glinton and many of the players are vaguely aware of the angst involving Fisher and Roots fans, it’s not really a topic of conversation.

“This is what football’s based on, right? It’s the rivalries and proximity and who we are,” he said. “For us it’s all about Oakland. It’s about making sure that we establish ourselves [against] the big boys from San Jose.”

As for the Fisher versus Oakland vibe? “It’s outside noise. I mean, growing up in the Bay, we all have a large connection to history with the teams of the Bay Area. My dad and mom, myself, we all grew up watching the Warriors and the Raiders. So it’s special, but to be able to represent Oakland, it’s even more special.”

The USOC has taken some hits recently, with MLS deciding that only eight of its 29 teams would enter their first teams in the competition, as other clubs opted to send their reserve sides. But for San Jose, it’s an opportunity to generate some momentum, and it needs all it can get.

The previous Wednesday, the team introduced new signing Hernan Lopez to the media amid the trappings of Levi’s Stadium, since the Quakes were playing there that weekend. He’s hailed as the Quakes’ record signing, with a transfer fee of $6 million. The San Jose organization touts the move as a sign that Fisher is willing to spend money, even as the price tag pales in comparison to the transfer records of other MLS teams. Still, it’s still a glimmer of hope in a season that’s been brutal even by the Quakes’ standards. Only the league’s ultra-forgiving playoff system, in which nine teams per conference qualify, allows San Jose to still entertain playoff hopes at this stage.

As Lopez made his rounds, manager Luchi Gonzalez allowed himself to look forward to the USOC encounter with Oakland. He’s mindful of the fact that at this stage of last year’s tournament, the Quakes were beaten by USL Championship side Monterrey Bay. He’s determined to avoid a repeat against a hugely motivated opponent, and also downplays the Fisher angle when asked.

“It’s about our team versus their team, and that’s it,” he said. “And just like LAFC vs. LA Galaxy is an MLS rivalry, this is a Bay Area rivalry. So I look at it from a soccer standpoint and a geographic standpoint. It’s a rivalry. We’ve got to show as much, if not more, pride than they have and bring it more so than them because they’re going to bring it. And I think it’s about respecting that and being excited about that and focusing on that.”

The Quakes advance, but pride for the Roots

USOC matches rarely draw big crowds. It’s part of what MLS dislikes about the tournament, even though in this case it’s at the Quakes’ home venue. In this case, PayPal Park is roughly half-full, but plenty of Oakland fans made the trip down Interstate 880 to attend and were audible throughout the match. About 60 of them marched into the stands, with Bejarano leading the way, pounding on his drum to chants of “Let’s go Oakland!”

Jorge Leon, president of Roots supporters group Oakland 68’s — a name that nods to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, as well as the civil rights movement of that era — was psyched, waving an Oakland 68’s flag. “Oh man, I feel excited,” he said. ” Honestly, it’s something that, as a soccer fan, I’ve always dreamt of. ‘How can we get into the US Open Cup?’ And now we’re here. So it’s great. It’s an MLS club, and especially the John Fisher stuff, oh, it’s a cherry on top.”

As the 12-minute mark passed, the Oakland supporters directed their first chant at Fisher, yelling “Sell the team!”, a mantra borrowed from their A’s cohorts. On the field, meanwhile, the two teams were evenly matched. The Roots had their best starting lineup out there, though Gonzalez opted to rotate his squad heavily, with only López and defender Tanner Beason considered starters. Oakland finished the first half strong, but despite some flowing attacking moves, clear chances were tough to come by.

In the second half, the Quakes’ edge in depth tilted the match in its favor, with usual starter Jackson Yueill entering the game and allowing Niko Tsakiris to move further forward. San Jose seized control of the midfield, and in the 76th minute, substitute Osseni Bouda lashed a shot in off the post to give the home side the lead. Oakland’s fate would be sealed six minutes later when Johnny Rodriguez is sent off for a late, heavy challenge on Bouda.

After the narrow win, there’s a positivity radiating from Gonzales. After so much strife, his team was enjoying a three-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. And for the first time, he acknowledges the chatter around the game.

“I think the guys were definitely up for the game. They understood the narrative or the background behind it,” he said. “We’re proud to be San Jose Earthquakes. We’re know that the players in Oakland are competing in a very physical and demanding league in the USL Championship and those players work hard to do well in their league to one day be in the MLS or they were in MLS. So there’s always dynamics that make the competition challenging.”

For Glinton, there’s a sense of disappointment at what might have been, especially when his side had the better of play in the first half. “I think anytime you get a chance to play a David versus Goliath, and then furthermore that Goliath being in your backyard, there’s always going to be a little bit extra in that,” he said. “They want to win for the Bay Area, they want to win for the fans for sure. So it is very difficult.”

Both teams still have a long way to go this season, and that goes for their fans, too. Bejarano noted that his arms were so tired he could barely use his phone, but he still walked away with a good feeling despite the loss. “Tough stuff. But proud that we played well against an MLS team,” he said via text.

As for getting bragging rights over Fisher, that will have to wait.