As the LA Galaxy’s current head coach and an MLS Best XI defender during their first six seasons of existence, Greg Vanney has been involved in many editions of the California Clasico.
His club’s quarter-century-long antagonism with the San Jose Earthquakes is rich in history, one that has blessed us with wonderful drama and occasionally outright chaos over the decades. But his most powerful memory of the rivalry is far from his favorite.
“The one I probably remember the moment the most, for the wrong reasons, was the 2001 [MLS Cup] final,” Vanney, who won Supporters' Shield, Concacaf Champions Cup and US Open Cup hardware in a Galaxy kit, told reporters ahead of Friday night's LA-San Jose clash at Dignity Health Sports Park that'll begin Heineken Rivalry Week (10:30 pm ET | ESPN2).
“It went into overtime at 1-1 and obviously we concede a goal [which undersells the scale of Dwayne De Rosario’s heroics] to lose the game. That's probably the one that hurts the most – the one that I remember the most doesn't overshadow the one that hurts the most.”
There’s perhaps a lesson in there for the players who will contest Friday’s match, and the rest of HRW as well. On occasions like these, the emotional weight of losing can eclipse even the joy of victory.
“I remember that one,” added Vanney with a wry smile, “and my hope is here we can turn that around with a Western Conference [Championship] win against San Jose at some point to put us into the MLS Cup final, to win it, and then I can put that away.”
It’s something to remember as LA seek a season sweep of their NorCal counterparts during Vanney’s first year in charge, then immediately pivot towards a derby of arguably even greater intensity: An August 28 El Trafico showdown against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium. In between, the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target provides a brief pause in league play.
Those are two nationally-televised affairs with lots riding on them – particularly in the eyes of their demanding fans – as well as the Galaxy’s sixth and seventh matches over a hectic 30-day span. It all adds up to a stiff physical, mental and psychological examination for Vanney's rebuilding project.
“So I think this is one of those tests, a little bit, for what the playoffs are like,” said Vanney, “where you have to get emotionally up and compete hard in what might be a challenging third game in [seven] days, and put together good concentration and good quality for 90 minutes against a rival and have that mentality and intensity that you need in a game like this. And then be able to bounce back and do it again in a week against another rival.
“That's a little bit of what a playoff mentality looks like, and it’s a little bit of that rivalry mentality.”
Adeptly handling the quirks of Matias Almeyda’s tactics, the Galaxy beat San Jose in their first two meetings of 2021, and also defeated LAFC in the first of their three crosstown matchups. But these next two might loom larger than those early-season results, considering the quickening pace of this compacted campaign and the specter of a fall playoff race in a fiercely competitive West, where 16 points separate frontrunners Seattle from eighth-place LAFC.
“It's the summer grind that guys are just kind of working through,” said Vanney, who remains without the injured Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez until the LAFC game at the earliest. “I find within our group, there's a great amount of concentration, focus and attention on where we're at. Everybody wants to play every single minute, so when I'm rotating lineups, it's not like guys love to be out of the team – they want to be on the field, which is a great thing. Guys are ready to go out and they want to help the team and they want to keep the group moving forward.”
“[That Colorado defeat] should heighten everybody's awareness and anxiety, a little bit, for not getting a result at home. We should feel like we need to come out and perform,” said the coach.
“I would like to think that this group has a chip on their shoulder.”
In retrospect, Vanney’s Toronto FC sides first mastered their Canadian Classique rivals in Montréal before conquering the rest of MLS, winning their historic treble in 2017 and very nearly winning Concacaf Champions League. Now we’ll see if he can make the Quakes and LAFC similar signposts on the Galaxy’s bid to rejoin the league elite.