STANFORD, Calif. – The annual Stanford Stadium edition of the California Clasico proved too big for even LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic to swallow up whole.
“Listen, I’ve played in front of 90,000,” Ibrahimovic said of facing the San Jose Earthquakes in front of an announced crowd of 50,743. “This is too small a crowd for me. I’m used to bigger crowds.”
That is undoubtedly true. But like a rock band returning to its roots by playing a tour of smaller, more intimate venues, Ibrahimovic was perfectly at home – and in the center of most things – as he made his Cali Clasico debut.
Needing just 60 seconds to score with a scorching half-volley, Ibrahimovic seemed poised to help the Galaxy end the Quakes’ hex amongst the eucalyptus trees, where LA had won only once in six previous visits. That sense only grew when Ibrahimovic added a curling 32-yard free kick goal in the 25th minute to put the Galaxy up 3-1.
Yet plenty of time remained for Chris Wondolowski to put that old Stanford magic to use, conjuring up a brace of his own to help San Jose yet again overcome a two-goal deficit against their archrivals, this time leading to a 3-3 draw.
“It definitely had some crazy feel to it, for sure, because of the amount of goals that occurred,” said LA coach Sigi Schmid, who has participated in plenty of Cali Clasicos but none previously at Stanford Stadium, a tradition that began in 2011. “But it was an exciting game for the fans, and I think they got their money’s worth, for sure.”
Wondolowski, who moved within five goals of tying Landon Donovan’s all-time mark, is the constant in this battle, the Northern California native who takes a special pleasure in beating his club’s biggest rival. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, came in without a track record in this derby but has a resumé – and a frame – that hold up under any scrutiny.
“There was a minute in the second half where I ran back and I’m standing next to him for a free kick and I kind of looked him up and down and was like, ‘Man, this is a big dude,’” Quakes right back Nick Lima said. “It’s good to play against players like that, see the way he’s thinking. He’s a phenomenal player, and he punished us. We saw what he could do.”
A national TV audience got to see what Wondolowski could do as well. The Quakes’ captain stepped up to the penalty spot in the 15th minute only to see former teammate David Bingham make a diving stop on his attempt. Wondolowski was quickest to the bouncing rebound, however, and stabbed it home with his left foot before giving Bingham – a former Quakes starter who left with more than a pinch of acrimony this winter – a piece or two of his mind.
The pair used to commute to practice together; it did not seem like they were sharing traffic tips. Bingham declined to detail what was said and Wondolowski was not made available to the media after the game.
“We’re good buddies and I wish him the best and I’ll see him soon,” insisted Bingham, who did eventually share a hug with Wondolowski after the final whistle.
Said Lima: “That’s between them. You saw the celebration.”
Wondolowski would get another crack from 12 yards when leading scorer Danny Hoesen was taken down in the 68th minute by Michael Ciani. There was no stopping that one for Bingham, who was overpowered despite guessing the right way.
“The second one, you saw how badly he wanted it,” Hoesen said of Wondolowski. “He put it away with a lot of power.”
In past years, the goals in these games have often come in a stoppage-time deluge, the byproduct of a desperate Quakes team throwing everything forward in hopes of pulling out yet another win. Alan Gordon doffed his shirt after scoring a game-winner at the death in 2012; Shea Salinas paid homage with a similar celebration after stealing three points last year.
The closest this edition came to that was when Wondolowski sprang free in the 90th minute. His near-post try hit the post, however, and bounded away. There would be no jerseys removed on this evening.
The scoring in this edition came about more by mistakes that undid either side. Schmid pointed to sloppy miscues – failed clearances, missed connections on passes, a player caught in possession – that helped give San Jose their opportunities. And the Galaxy in turn somehow beat San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell not once but twice with free kicks from outside his penalty area, including Romain Alessandrini’s 20th-minute effort tucked inside the near post.
Instead of giving either team a leg up on their attempts to get back above the Western Conference’s red line, it ended up leaving both teams unsatisfied – and in some cases, lobbing zingers.
“With where they’re at in the table,” Bingham said, “a tie pretty much eliminates them from playoffs. They’re pretty much done.”
Lima, naturally, disagreed with that assessment: “I don’t have any words for him. But I think we have to take each opportunity going forward and get points from it. In this league, you’re never really out until the numbers say you are.”
Whatever happens from here on out in 2018, there’s always next summer, and perhaps a chance for another chapter in the Cali Clasico record book to be authored by Ibrahimovic and Wondolowski.
“I said yesterday, I make them love me,” Ibrahimovic said of Quakes fans. “So for sure, they love me even more now.”