SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the San Jose Earthquakes continue an intense preseason training camp in Cancun, Mexico, players are being put to the test by demanding head coach Matias Almeyda. Soon, as a bit of a reward, they’ll get to enjoy a well-deserved day off.
This Sunday in nearby Miami — less than a two-hour flight from the Caribbean resort — the San Francisco 49ers face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, looking to win their sixth Vince Lombardi trophy. The Quakes, ready to support their Bay Area brethren, will get a breather from two-a-day training activities to watch along on TV.
“Yes, last year they all watched, and they’ll watch it this year because I know how much it means,” Almeyda said.
Almeyda has learned a lot about American sports culture since arriving in San Jose ahead of the 2019 MLS season, and at last year’s preseason Cancun camp, he yielded to players’ pleas for a break in the brutal training regimen to watch the big game. This time around, he promises to be one of the 49ers faithful.
“I watch sports a lot,” Almeyda said. “In fact, I went to go watch the 49ers play, and I hope they become champions because I now root for them.”
The San Francisco moniker shields the reality that the 49ers play at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, which is a long punt away from Earthquakes Stadium in San Jose. The two sporting neighbors have seen some crossover moments in recent years, and support between the teams has been mutual.
Back in 2014, as final touches were being applied to the $1.3 billion modern edifice, the Earthquakes played the Seattle Sounders in the first sporting event hosted at the new 49ers’ home. An announced 48,765 curious fans came out that day and were treated to a 1-0 Quakes victory. A year later, captain Chris Wondolowski scored his 100th career MLS goal at Levi’s Stadium in a 1-1 draw against Orlando City, furthering the connection between the two organizations.
Wondolowski, who is a big Raiders fan and faces a dilemma with rival Kansas City vying for the championship, will fall back on his Bay Area roots in picking a side in this year’s Super Bowl. He especially appreciates the times the two South Bay neighbors have come together to celebrate fútbol and football.
“Definitely my hatred for the Chiefs is there, but I’m all for the Bay, especially with the Raiders losing,” Wondolowski said with a laugh. “The Niners definitely have some soccer fans, Joe Staley is a huge Quakes fan and also just a fan of the game. So, I’m pulling for the Niners, especially against the Chiefs.”
Wondolowski may shift his allegiance to the Red and Gold for other reasons, too, especially now that the Raiders have packed up and relocated to Las Vegas. By mere coincidence, following previous NFL seasons when the Raiders moved towns — from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1981 and a return relocation in 1994 — the 49ers have gone on to win the Super Bowl. If it happens again this year, San Francisco fans may want to fund a Raiders move every season.
As he enters his last MLS season, Wondolowski is determined to soak in every experience, and a team-bonding Super Bowl watch party fits right in with that goal. His long-time teammate Shea Salinas, who has adopted the Bay Area as his home, is making sure Almeyda follows through on his promise to let everyone watch the game.
“Yeah, we’ll be working on that, especially with the 49ers in it,” Salinas said. “We’re excited for them. He knows a bit more about American football this year, so hopefully we can sneak that day off, at least for the game.”
Almeyda has big plans for the Earthquakes this season and believes they’ve got what it takes to make the MLS Cup playoffs after failing on the last day of the season to qualify last year. He sees other sports not as a distraction, but as a learning opportunity, so it won’t be surprising at all if he makes watching the Super Bowl a teaching moment.
“I think you can take something from other sports with respect to soccer,” Almeyda said. “They have a lot of significant movements and styles to copy.”
The Quakes coach, a world-class international during his soccer playing days, may not want to trade in his boots for cleats. In a now legendary highlight reel from last Thanksgiving’s team Turkey Bowl, Almeyda flashed some moves that Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback Steve Young would certainly appreciate, but his scrambling prowess did not come without a cost.
“I don’t think I’ll play again, because when I played that one time I broke my big toe,” Almeyda revealed. “But they couldn’t stop me!”
The Cancun camp diversions for Almeyda and his players will have to come from elsewhere, but in whatever form they take, they’ll all be in it together.
— San Jose Earthquakes (@SJEarthquakes) November 28, 2019