When the Los Angeles Galaxy has visited the San Jose Earthquakes, fans historically have flocked to the friendly confines of Spartan Stadium. And it shouldn't be any different Saturday when the Quakes (2-2-3, 9 points) entertain the Major League Soccer Western Conference-leading Galaxy (3-1-3, 12 points) at 7 p.m. PT Saturday night.
"I think it's the best rivalry in MLS," said first-year Quakes' head coach Dominic Kinnear, who has experienced the annual clashes between the teams as an assistant coach the last three seasons with the Quakes and as a player for San Jose in 1997. "There is plenty of intensity and emotion on the field when the Quakes and Galaxy play. The big crowds have had a lot to do with it. You go into every game wanting to win, but you especially want to beat the Galaxy."
San Jose and Los Angeles have met 17 times in regular season or playoff games at Spartan, averaging in excess of 16,000 spectators per match. Only once have fewer than 12,000 fans been in attendance for a San Jose-Los Angeles MLS match (9,187 in last season's first meeting in late April).
Of the 10 crowds that have exceeded 20,000 to watch San Jose play MLS opponents at Spartan, five have been against the Galaxy, including a stadium record overflow throng of 31,728 on May 12, 1996.
The 14,145 who showed up for the second leg of last season's conference semifinal series between the Galaxy and Quakes at Spartan witnessed arguably the most exciting match in MLS history.
The Galaxy won the first leg 2-0 at home and scored the first two goals of Game 2 for what appeared to be an insurmountable 4-0 aggregate advantage. But the Quakes stunned the Southlanders with four unanswered goals in regulation by Jeff Agoos, Landon Donovan, Jamil Walker and Chris Roner to force overtime. Rodrigo Faria completed the incredible comeback with a goal in the 96th minute off assists from Donovan and Ian Russell, capping a 5-4 aggregate victory that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"That was probably the most amazing game that I have ever been involved with and the best MLS game I have ever seen," said Frank Yallop, who two weeks later would guide San Jose to its second MLS Cup title in his three seasons as the Quakes' coach. "To come back from 4-0 down (was) just mind-boggling."
The overall series between the Golden State rivals has been dominated by Los Angeles, with 24 wins, four ties and only 11 losses, including 3-0 in U.S. Open Cup matches and a 3-3 record in playoff games.
It has been San Jose, however, that has won the two biggest matches in the series: 2-1 in overtime at the 2001 MLS Cup final in Columbus, and last year's come-from-behind playoff eliminator. The Galaxy's biggest wins over San Jose came during a best-of-three playoff series in 1996, a pair of 2-0 triumphs at home after dropping the opening game 1-0 at Spartan.
WINLESS AT HOME: While they haven't lost at home this season, the Quakes also haven't won in three tries. They have tied Chicago 0-0, D.C. United 1-1 and the MetroStars 5-5. They are 2-2-2 in their last six games against Los Angeles. The Galaxy snapped a 17-game winless stretch on the road (0-10-7) with a 3-1 win over Dallas on May 8. The team's last road victory prior to the beginning of its drought was 1-0 over the Quakes on Sept. 21, 2002.
DEFENSIVE SHUFFLE: Picking up Wes Hart in a trade from Colorado and drafting All-American Ryan Cochrane from Santa Clara University has provided a big lift for the Quakes' injury-plagued defense.
Before the start of the season, the team lost Roner (ankle surgery) for the year, and Todd Dunivant has been sidelined by a lingering left quadriceps strain he suffered during preseason. Roner started 22 games last season as both a defender and midfielder, and Dunivant made 31 starts (including playoffs) on the left side of the back four. Adding to the Quakes' woes was the loss of central defender Eddie Robinson for the season with a ruptured tendon of his left hamstring suffered in the fourth league game.
The Quakes also lost defenders Craig Waibel and Ramiro Corrales with one-game red-card suspensions, and Waibel and Troy Dayak were last-minute scratches with ailments prior to Saturday's 2-1 win at Dallas. Waibel, bothered by a right groin strain, is listed as probable for Saturday's match. Dayak, nursing an upper back strain, is questionable. Quakes' veteran warhorse Jeff Agoos is the only defender to start every game.
"It has been difficult maintaining consistency in the back because of all the changes we've had to make,'' Kinnear said. "But, under the circumstances, I'm pleased with the way the defense has been playing. We're also getting some great goalkeeping out of Pat Onstad."
On the heels of an outstanding 10-save performance against Dallas, Onstad was named the MLS player of the week for the second time this season by the Professional Soccer Reporters' Association (PSRA). He received my vote.
Cochrane, who made his debut with the club during a 4-1 Quakes' win over Sporting of Portugal on May 12 at Spartan, played well in central defense as a replacement for Dayak at Dallas. He made a goal-saving play late in the game with a sliding clearance.
Agoos and Cochrane started in the middle and Corrales and Hart on the left and right sides in defense the last two games, including the Sporting match. The same foursome could start against the Galaxy, should Dayak and Waibel not be ready. Four different combinations have started in the back for the Quakes in their seven league matches.
The Quakes have allowed more than one goal only twice, in a 2-1 loss at D.C. United and the 5-5 tie with the MetroStars. In their other five league matches, they have yielded only four goals.
ACTION WEDNESDAY NIGHT: The Galaxy visits D.C. United in MLS play Wednesday night, while the Quakes will play a 7 p.m. PT exhibition match against Santa Clara University at Santa Clara Youth Soccer Park.
"A game like this allows us to give playing time to those who don't have a lot of minutes, and to assess the talent at Santa Clara," Kinnear said.
Rookie forward Steve Cronin is one of three former Broncos on the Quakes' roster with Cochrane and Walker. Among other ex-Broncos who have starred for the Quakes were goalkeeper Joe Cannon and midfielders Paul Bravo and Jeff Baicher.
Dave Payne is a freelance soccer writer. He previously covered soccer for 33 years for the San Jose Mercury News. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.