The Throw-In: Conflicted & torn by the California Clasico

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I’m not going to play diplomat here in the least: The California Clasico is absolutely, positively my favorite rivalry in Major League Soccer.

The battles on the field between the Earthquakes and Galaxy over the past 17 years have been often epic, and you can feel the bad blood between the fans – and sometimes the players, too. Best of all, it’s a rivalry that’s about more than just soccer, tapping into more than half a century of animosity between Northern and Southern California.

But picking a side has left me more confused and without answers than at any time in my 15 years as a professional journalist. And there’s nothing anyone can do to fix that.

I’ll try to explain. I’m a Los Angeles native, born and bred in Tinseltown and, though I no longer live there, I have a lot of civic pride for my hometown – especially when it comes to sports. I am a proud Dodgers and Lakers fanatic. I rippled with nostalgia when the Kings won their first Stanley Cup. I bleed Bruin blue when UCLA plays in pretty much anything.

And when Major League Soccer got going in 1996, I immediately jumped on the Galaxy bandwagon. It wasn’t necessarily as easy to give all my passion – I had left for college a few years earlier (and later moved to New York City) and it wasn’t exactly like I could stream live matches in the early days of the Internet.

But I did my best. I went to a few games when I was home for summers. I bought a garish teal-and-black-striped jersey. I championed Cobi Jones, Eduardo Hurtado and Mauricio Cienfuegos.

And like any good Angeleno worth my Giants-loathing salt, I bought into the Clasico. The Clash were the enemy, another in a long line of Bay Area teams I was bred to hate. I gloated when the Galaxy toughed their way past Eric Wynalda, John Doyle, Paul Bravo & Co. in the inaugural MLS Cup playoffs.

I hurt when the renamed Earthquakes bounced my Galaxy from the postseason in 2001 and ’03 – from afar in New York. And I was especially conflicted by LA-area native Landon Donovan, who had achieved hero status to me for his 2002 World Cup performance. Yet here he was with his annoyingly bleach-blonde hair, constantly terrorizing my team.

And I still have trouble believing what I saw in the Quakes’ miracle comeback from a four-goal aggregate deficit in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals.

That made it extra sweet two years later when Donovan returned to MLS after a failed stint in Germany, joined the hometown team and helped the No. 8-seeded Galaxy stun the Supporters’ Shield-winning Quakes in the same stage of the postseason.

But that’s when things got confusing. Two months after the long-shot Galaxy won their second MLS Cup, I made my move back to the West Coast – to the Bay Area. It was a long-planned move for me, as San Francisco always felt like a second home growing up.

And when I got there, MLS was gone. The Earthquakes had packed up and moved to Houston, and my part of the world was a barren wasteland for top-flight soccer. And it hurt. I couldn’t scratch the itch. All that drama from the California Clasico was now just in highlight reels and news reports.

I started to realize I was actively pulling for the enemy to be reincarnated. Much like the US national team needs Mexico to be good, and vice versa, this was a rivalry that couldn’t exist without the yin to the yang. And when local ownership took the plunge to re-form the Quakes, I was on cloud nine.

I wasn’t a fan of Quakes 2.0, mind you – but as a soccer journo, I immersed myself in my local team. I made the 50-mile drive down to San Jose regularly to cover trainings, attend games, mingle with the club execs. I figured if MLS was here, I was going to be part of it. It was a brand-new team with the same old colors – which was, admittedly, a little weird – but I wanted to be part of it and to get in on the ground floor.

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And that’s when things got weird. I got to know and found myself pulling for the new Quakes. I wanted them to succeed, to make our local pride swell. I got to know a lot of the players, too. And they were impossible not to cheer on.

I watched their regular-season debut in 2008 at the Home Depot Center against my old Galaxy team, and I actually found myself feeling badly for the expansion team as they fell 2-0 to their old foes.

I was a regular a Buck Shaw Stadium all season, hoping to bask in the glory of the new team coming into its own. And I kept coming back. By midseason, the Earthquakes were showing signs of promise under Frank Yallop and were flirting with postseason contention thanks to some midseason acquisitions like Darren Huckerby and Francisco Lima.

And then the weirdest moment came that August, when David Beckham and the Galaxy came riding back into town, and the Earthquakes staged a historic last-gasp victory over their Clasico rivals – what was essentially the final nail in the coffin for head coach Ruud Gullit and GM Alexi Lalas in underachieving, dysfunctional LA.

By then I was really confused. My old team was in total disarray despite the star-studded cast. My adopted team was on the rise and looked like it was getting its house in order quickly. I found myself pulling for both.

And it’s been that way ever since. I cheered on the Quakes as they made a miracle run to the Eastern Conference Championship in 2010. I felt the pain of seeing the heavily favored – and completely rebuilt – Galaxy side in the Western Championship get blitzed by upstart FC Dallas.

I rejoiced in the Galaxy’s MLS Cup triumph last November, fully sucked in by the story of redemption for Beckham, Donovan and the rest of the hungry would-be – and finally – champions. At the same time, I was heartbroken the Earthquakes couldn’t put another winning season together.

On Saturday, I won’t know what to do. I’ll be one of the 50,000 at Stanford Stadium in the 50th regular-season edition of the California Clasico. The pendulum has swung the Earthquakes’ way – and that’s fantastic. Yet here I am, still stressing about LA’s rebound from their horrible start.

My heart will be forever stuck between where I came from and where I am.

I’ll be confused, frantic and conflicted. And I’ll love every minute of it.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.