CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy's oldest rival might still be their biggest, and so there's more at stake than what's at the surface when they take on the San Jose Earthquakes in the season's first California Clasico on Saturday (10:30 pm ET, watch FREE on MLS Stream of the Week).
The last time these teams met back in November, LA scored three first-half goals and then held on to win the Western Conference semifinal series en route to their second successive MLS Cup title.
“The last time we played them was in a heated playoff series,” defender Todd Dunivant said as the Galaxy (7-6-3) prepared for this weekend's meeting at Stanford University. “That's the last taste we remember, and I'm sure it's the last thing they remember, too.
"The Earthquakes have always been our rivalry throughout the league – Chivas USA is a rival because we play them in the same stadium – but the Earthquakes have always been a huge rival. The fact that both teams last year were battling in the playoffs just added fuel to the fire.”
Perhaps, but there's more to it than that. There have been four huge postseason encounters, with San Jose winning in the 2001 MLS Cup title game, then rallying from a four-goal deficit to oust LA en route to the 2003 championship. The Galaxy pulled off a stunning triumph in 2005, when San Jose lost just four regular-season games and won the Supporters' Shield, and again last year.
San Jose dominated the season series in 2012, sparking wars of words with their aggressive tactics – and inflaming Galaxy fans, several of whom were arrested for an altercation at an October game at Buck Shaw Stadium. It all adds up to one of MLS's best rivalries.
Maybe the best?
“It's an argument, for sure,” said Dunivant, who has won MLS Cup titles with both teams. “It's been there for a long time. The fact that San Jose went away [after the 2005 season], it kind of lost a little bit, and then as an expansion team [in 2008], once they got better and last year with being a top team again, that's when you get meaningful games, games that matter, heated games. And that's what you've got.”
Much of the spark is natural. There's long been a huge rivalry, in many forms, between Southern California and the Bay Area, and it has played out memorably on the athletic field with baseball's Giants-Dodgers rivalry and with Rams and 49ers in the NFL, at least when the Rams were based in LA.
Is it bigger than the cross-stadium “SuperClasico” rivalry with Chivas? The fans think so, but the players are divided.
“When you have a team you see every day and they're in your same city and stadium, that's the team you're sort of up for the most every year,” said Landon Donovan, who won two titles with the Earthquakes before joining the Galaxy, and winning the first of three championships in LA, in 2005.
“But growing up a sports fan [in Southern California] and knowing the NorCal-SoCal rivalry has added meaning for me and added excitement, and I think a lot of the guys feel that, too.”
Donovan didn't dissent when asked if it might be MLS' best rivalry.
“Yeah, probably,” he said. “The last few years, with how it's gone with Houston, you could argue that is, too, but these games [with San Jose] historically have been fun, entertaining, meaningful, and this is a team we're playing that is pretty desperate right now.”