SANTA CLARA, Calif. - So much has happened in the Union's still-short history that four years seems like a long time ago.
But it really hasn't been that long since Shea Salinas roamed the left wing at PPL Park in 2010, the Union's inaugural season. He was one of the team's expansion draft picks, and went on to play 17 games in blue and gold that year.
Philadelphia was Salinas' first point of call in his pro career outside of the team that brought him into MLS, the San Jose Earthquakes. His stay proved to be brief, though, as the Vancouver Whitecaps took him in their expansion draft ahead of the 2011 season. And Salinas didn't stay at B.C. Place for long either, as he returned to the Bay Area in 2012.
Since then, Salinas has finally been able to settle down. He played 19 games in 2012 and 28 last year, and has already made 16 appearances this season. Last month, the Lubbock, Texas native scored a terrific goal in a nationally televised game against the Chicago Fire:
This past Saturday, I got a chance to catch up with Salinas, as I swung down to the Bay Area before heading to Portland for the Major League Soccer All-Star game in Portland.
It was great timing. I got to take in the inaugural event at the new Levi's Stadium, soon to be home to the San Francisco 49ers. Over 48,000 fans showed up to watch the Earthquakes play the Seattle Sounders, and they left happy after a 1-0 San Jose win.
Not surprisingly, everyone wanted to talk after the game with hometown hero Chris Wondolowski and goal-scorer Yannick Djaló. So while the media horde was elsewhere in the locker room, I got a few minutes to catch up with Salinas.
The night was as special for Salinas as it was for everyone in the crowd.
“A lot of history is going to be made in this stadium,” he said. “So it was awesome to be the first piece of that history.”
San Jose is no stranger to playing games on big stages. The club plays at least one game every year at one of the Bay Area's big venues, usually AT&T Park or Stanford Stadium. Those games have often drawn big crowds, as much for the sense of spectacle as anything. Last month, the Earthquakes and 49ers agreed to a five-year deal to bring those games to Levi's Stadium, which means the tradition will continue.
Among the reasons for the tradition: San Jose's current home, Buck Shaw Stadium, seats just over 10,000 fans. It is by far the smallest venue in MLS. The Earthquakes will get their own stadium in Santa Clara late next year, and it will seat around 18,000. But they'll keep going to Levi's Stadium, and if the big crowds keep turning out, it's hard to blame them.
“When we go from the small stadium to the big stadium, it's always fun playing in front of 48,000 instead of 10,000,” Salinas told me. “But we also enjoy Buck Shaw - we have an advantage on that field and we know how the surface plays. We usually play really well there.”
Away from the field, Salinas only has to have one home in the Bay Area. It's clear from his play and his personality that he has benefited greatly from finally being able to settle with one club.
“My first four years, I was on three different clubs, which was difficult for me and my wife, but we also enjoyed it,” he said. “We loved all the cities we went to - loved Philly, loved Vancouver, and now we're loving San Jose. My wife and I have looked at my career as an adventure, and we're happy to be stable in San Jose now.”
I noted to Salinas that quite a few Union fans I know still remember Salinas' time in Philadelphia fondly. I get tweets every now and again from readers asking what if, and at times, it's hard to blame them.
“My wife and I lived right across from Reading Terminal Market and we loved the city,” he said. “We definitely miss parts of each city we've been in, and we're happy everywhere we've been.”
Most of the time, though, Salinas is focused firmly on the present. The Earthquakes are in next-to-last place in the Western Conference, seven points back of fifth-place Colorado. But they have three games in hand on the Rapids, and Salinas believes there's still time to make a run.
"We did it last year and fell just short” of the postseason, he said. “Right now we're just looking at it one game at a time. I know that's a cliché, but that's what you have to do.”
For as much as Salinas can help his team, there's no question that the Earthquakes' hopes sit above all on Wondolowski's shoulders. But the star striker also is carrying the burden of his glaring miss against Belgium at the World Cup.
Whether he likes it or not, Wondolowski might not be able to shed that for a while. Salinas is well aware, and he told me that the team has made a point of trying to help Wondolowski get his confidence back.
“Every player has missed an open net - it was unfortunate, the circumstances around his, but we know he's going to bounce back,” Salinas said. “We rallied around him and told him told him we have faith in him.
It seems that support has made a difference. Since returning from Brazil, Wondolowski has two goals and two assists in four appearances.
Of course, the pressure of MLS is a fraction of the pressure at a World Cup. But Salinas meant what he said. He has the same candor and earnest demeanor that he did when he called Philadelphia home.
Salinas will be back at PPL Park on August 24 as the Earthquakes visit the Union. Even though he'll be wearing enemy colors, I suspect he might get a bit of applause from the fans who still remember when he was on their side.