Rivalries can be complicated.
San Jose Earthquakes legend and MLS goals king Chris Wondolowski, nearly two years removed from retiring, explained one interpretation before Sunday’s Rivalry Week matchup at the LA Galaxy (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FS1).
“I don't like the Galaxy in general, that’s for sure,” Wondolowski said in a 1-on-1 conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “But with MLS there's that turnover and six degrees of separation between every team. You end up knowing and playing with guys who have been at both places, like for me an Alan Gordon. Even with the US national team, I was friends with Landon Donovan.
“So I can't say I had bad blood to the guys, but I have bad blood to the Galaxy. It's player versus club.”
Wondolowski, who’s now working as a developmental coach across the Earthquakes’ various levels, experienced his fair share of California Clásico tussles. During 17 MLS seasons and 413 games played, the vast majority with San Jose, he bagged 14 of his league-record 171 goals in 34 matches against the Galaxy. And, more often than not, Wondolowski came out on the winning end.
As this rivalry resumes and caps Matchday 12, few faces around MLS can better explain what these games represent for two original clubs that have duked it out for nearly three decades.
“The dynamic has changed a little bit with LAFC being around because there always was just the California battle between the two,” said Wondolowski. “But San Jose and LA have had some epic games, which has added to the allure. There's a good rivalry, one where both clubs have successful pasts too. There's that history, those battles you remember and get inspired by.”
This go-around, the Western Conference clubs meet while trending in opposite directions. San Jose are flying high after last weekend’s 2-1 win over previously-unbeaten LAFC, a statement result that showed their rapid progress under new head coach Luchi Gonzalez. LA, meanwhile, are only spared the unsavory title of MLS’s last-place team by virtue of Sporting Kansas City’s similarly poor start to 2023.
Even with Greg Vanney’s team struggling in Carson, and San Jose sitting fourth in the West, Wondolowski knows rivalries can negate the deepest of narratives.
“The Galaxy are desperate for some points right now, so that makes for a dangerous team,” said the 40-year-old former US international. “We’ll need to have that killer instinct and be ruthless and play the game we have been lately. We need to expect the Galaxy to bring their best. They have the payroll, the profile of player, have been creating xG. It's just a matter of time before the goals start going in for them.”
Espinoza gets his due
San Jose, confronting all that, will benefit from winger Cristian Espinoza arguably vaulting into Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner status. The Argentine veteran has eight goals and three assists in 11 matches, plus leads the league with 28 key passes.
How Wondolowski sees it, all that’s changed for Espinoza is the goal production – he’s already set a career-high in MLS.
“To be honest, he's put up these numbers before,” said Wondolowski of the Buenos Aires native. “If he was on Galaxy or LAFC or New York City, he'd be the MVP each year. It's unfortunate that he hasn't quite gotten the media coverage before, but he's put those assists and chances up each year.
“He's been an amazing player for this club. It's just now he has the goals to his name as well, people respond to that. Now they recognize him a little bit more, so they're talking more as they should.”
Wondolowski, addressing other aspects of San Jose’s turnaround, explained what defensive midfielder Carlos Gruezo and center back Jonathan Mensah – two newcomers signed in the winter – have contributed. Gruezo, brought back to MLS from the Bundesliga, was described as San Jose’s “bulldog” and “anchor.” And Mensah, acquired in a trade with Columbus, brings leadership that “calms everyone down” and allows backline partner Rodrigues to be “probably in the Defender of the Year conversation,” accordingly to Wondolowski.
One player San Jose are waiting to reach another gear is rising US international forward Cade Cowell. He’s currently in Argentina preparing for the U-20 World Cup alongside fellow Quakes homegrown standout Niko Tsakiris, and thus won’t be available against the Galaxy.
Cowell, who boasts 0g/2a in 11 games (all starts), hasn’t quite taken the leap many thought he would after a strong USMNT January camp. But Wondolowski, who’s helped guide Cowell for years, feels the youngster will come good on his lofty potential that’s sparked transfer buzz in past windows.
“The funny and ironic thing is one of my messages to him is it's almost like an Espinoza situation: You just need to continue what you're doing and the numbers will come,” he said of conversations with Cowell.
“Right now, in the world of internet and media, you're either the greatest or you're the worst. It's all founded on numbers, on what you're doing, what you're scoring or not. But what he's doing right now to help the team is fantastic. He's helping us with the press, creating those regains and those turnovers that are so crucial to how we play. You could say he's underperforming, but it's a subjective debate too.”
Asked about the different eras, Wondolowski said the tactics are “night and day different.” Almeyda preferred a high-pressing, man-marking system that required intricacies and prompted a commensurate player recruitment strategy. So far under Gonzalez, the approach is recalibrated.
“Luchi commands a locker room and instills his game model where the guys are bought in,” Wondolowski said. “He does an amazing job of developing young talent and getting the most out of them, so that's really fun to be around. He has a philosophy of one where we're going to work hard, we're going to grind, but we're also going to laugh, to enjoy ourselves. It's nice right now.”
It’d be far too premature to claim the Earthquakes’ glory days are back – the club’s made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs just twice since 2012 and lost in Round One both times (2017, ‘20). But there’s certainly a different aura around San Jose, one that enters rivalry mode this weekend.
“The club's maybe hit a little bit of a reset button to try and go in a direction we can be proud of and brings success back,” said Wondolowski. “So there's optimism flowing around the club right now from the front office to the locker room. The guys are buying in and believing in this time under Luchi.”