SANTA CLARA — The Earthquakes opened the 2014 Major League Soccer season Saturday night with an example of why they are a Bay Area sports franchise on the rise.
For the second time in four days San Jose scored a goal in extra time to earn a chest-beating draw.
Center back Victor Bernardez scored in the 95th minute Saturday as the Quakes rallied for a 3-3 tie against mighty Real Salt Lake in front of a sellout crowd of 10,525 at Buck Shaw Stadium that included former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
It was a fine start to San Jose's seventh season in MLS since re-entering the league as an expansion team.
In past years it has felt like fits and starts. A nice step forward. Then two steps back.
But not this year. San Jose lost some key players from the previous two seasons but rebuilt its roster over the winter in what appears to be an upgrade. We'll know more once the eight-month season gets to summer.
But beyond results on the field, the club has gained traction. It has developed a solid fan base with its fourth consecutive sellout at Buck Shaw Stadium. It has sold out almost every MLS home game in the past three years.
The Quakes also will move into a new, privately financed 18,000-seat stadium next season, a factor that will help the team attract better players and make more money to pay them.
Team president Dave Kaval recently showed the agent of Yannick Djalo the new digs in helping persuade the Portugal-based midfielder to sign a loan deal with San Jose.
Djalo was the third European player the team acquired in the offseason, signaling the Earthquakes are serious about becoming one of MLS' elite teams.
"We're in the market for players of a higher quality," Kaval said before the game Saturday. "Our club has finally broken through."
The Quakes need a breakthrough year in 2014 with the World Cup coming in June and July and the stadium next season. Soccer will get a lot of attention this year.
San Jose also has a big game against the Los Angeles Galaxy scheduled for Stanford Stadium in June and will open the 49ers' Levi's Stadium in August against the Seattle Sounders.
Kaval calls these games "tent pole events" that help broaden the Quakes' Bay Area brand.
The team lags behind baseball, the NBA, NFL and NHL in popularity. But it is gaining ground by building a solid foundation on the field and off.
"All the teams are stepping it up," veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch said of MLS. "You can see it" happening in San Jose, too.
But be forewarned. These Quakes are not for the faint-hearted.
The players wore snazzy new red uniforms Saturday but didn't change the color of their game: a pounding, spitting, fighting spirit until the bitter end.
"It's an Earthquakes' thing," said Cordell Cato, who was thrown into the right fullback position because of sudden injuries that hit the team last week.
Last Tuesday, it was striker Alan Gordon's stoppage-time goal that led to a 1-1 tie against visiting Toluca in the first leg of a home-and-home series in the quarterfinals of the Champions League tournament for the Caribbean, Central American and North American region.
Saturday, it took two late goals from the team's chief defender -- Bernardez -- to spin magic once again.
The Earthquakes have 17 second-half stoppage-time goals in all competitions since 2012, 15 of which have led to a draw or victory.
"We've got a lot of big bodies," the 6-foot-3 Gordon said. "Somebody's going to be open."
Someone's going to score late.
You can almost count on it.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.