Ten years ago, on June 30, 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy took the Cali Clasico to Stanford Stadium for the first time. In front of a crowd of 50,391 fans, a pair of iconic teams delivered a match that became embedded in MLS 2.0 lore. A world-class star scoring a world-class free kick, a wild comeback from 3-1 down, a fight that brought an unsuspecting giant blue old guy kind of thing (?) into the crossfire, and more would combine to create one of the most iconic matches of the last decade in MLS.
"We just hated them"
The Cali Clasico, the name given to the Quakes-Galaxy rivalry, started as the name given to the Clash-Galaxy rivalry. These are two original teams we’re talking about here. Other rivalries have existed outside MLS for longer, but this is the league’s oldest, hating-est baby.
The 2012 season may have delivered the peak of that loathing. Not just for the intense absurdity of the games that they played, but because the personality of the teams involved presented two archetypes destined to clash. Especially if both teams are good. And both teams were very good.
The Quakes developed a reputation that year for wild comebacks and openly embracing any opportunity to be the antagonists. To put it simply: The Quakes were made up of journeymen and relative unknowns – and Chris Wondolowski. The Galaxy casually trotted out Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham. Yet the Quakes were the ones on a path to the Supporters’ Shield that year.
“That Quakes team…we just f---ing hated. We just hated them,” Donovan told MLSsoccer.com, with the matchup returning Wednesday night at LA's Dignity Health Sports Park as part of Heineken Rivalry Week (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
“Because they were kind of everything we weren’t. We were lots of quality players. We had what you would expect from the LA Hollywood flair. And they were just like, grab your lunch pail and go to work. And so what it did is the games were always competitive. Because one, they also had quality, but they were never out of it. They were never out of any game. And it was such a nightmare to play against.”
"Goonies never say die"
That nightmare came to life a couple of times that season. The first time came in late May. The Quakes, down 2-0 in LA, scored three times from the 73rd minute on and earned the kind of stunning victory that would come to define a team that earned 17 points that season from goals scored beyond the 84th minute.
After that 3-2 win in LA, forward Steven Lenhart, already well on his way to becoming one of the great heels in MLS history, explained the team found a way to win because “Goonies never say die.” The best Quakes team ever officially had one of the best MLS nicknames ever. All thanks to a Galaxy team that brought out the most purified version of themselves.
“We were doing well so we knew we were always going to try and knock them off the pedestal,” said Wondolowski, now a Quakes interim assistant coach.
“They were always made of big-time stars. They had the star power with Beckham and Landon Donovan and all these guys out there. And so we kind of wore that on our sleeve. Just the blue-collar attitude and we had a little chip on our shoulder. I think that a lot of that team was made up of MLS journeymen who were discarded by other teams and kind of put together in a way that just fit perfectly. We used that and loved every minute of that.”
Bend it like Beitashour, Beckham
Seven minutes into the match at Stanford Stadium, Lenhart added another piece of lore to the rivalry, picking up the pieces of a Steven Beitashour shot/cross that deflected off Galaxy ‘keeper Josh Saunders and poking it into the net. As the camera cuts to a group of fans holding a “Bend it like Beitashour” sign, Lenhart looks around for where to take his celebration. He settles on the crossbar and knocks out a few pullups.
It’s definitely part tribute to the bodyweight workouts he and a few other teammates knocked out at the training ground, and it’s probably also the most annoying possible celebration he could have come up with in the moment. It sets a tone for a game that already seems hellbent on not just going off the rails but avoiding them entirely.
Moments later, San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch collided with teammate Victor Bernardez as he goes to punch a cross. Busch is hit in the head. Busch stayed down for a while and, horrifyingly by today’s standards and very likely by 2012 standards too, remained in the game despite the fact he can barely see it.
An article on the San Jose website a few days later explained Busch “simply couldn’t keep his eyes open; he would mostly close them when the Quakes had the ball on attack, then open them back up as the Galaxy moved downfield.” Busch would go on to say in that same article that “Between this [and the past injuries], my modeling career is shot.”
He thankfully came out at halftime. Although it seemed like he would have stayed if he could.
“He was as tough as nails and it took convincing for him to come out. I mean, he was not willing to come out, even though the coaching staff and training staff told him ‘You only have one eye. We think that probably for your own benefit, that you have a broken face and it's not good to go out there,’” Wondolowski said.
Before Busch could come out though, the Galaxy flipped the game on its head, starting with a stunning free kick from one of the likeliest sources in the history of the sport. In the 31st minute, Beckham stood over the ball and slammed it into the net with ease. It’s so well taken, that Busch couldn't do anything but stand and watch.
Too much energy
It’s the kind of moment that showcased Beckham’s otherworldly talent and highlighted exactly why the Goonies relished getting under his skin at every available opportunity.
“It hit the back of the net before you could blink. I mean, even with two eyes the ‘keeper has no chance at it,” Wondolowski said.
“[Overall] it was a respect thing where you're like, ‘Wow, you've done your thing. Appreciate you putting light on the league. But now we're gonna f--k you up because you're in our league now. Now it's our game. Welcome to MLS.’
“It was kinda one of those things where we wanna show that you can't just put your name out here. You actually have to work. And credit to him, he did. I always thought he was a great pioneer and trailblazer and helped the league. But at the same time, anytime I lined up against him, I wanted to kick him and beat him on the scoreboard.”
After the Beckham goal, San Jose unraveled for a few moments. In particular defender Jason Hernandez. In the 36th minute, Hernandez put the ball into his own net and put the Galaxy up 2-1. In the 41st minute, he all but does it again when he turned in his own box and passed the ball back directly to a shocked Mike Magee, who thinks quickly and finds Landon Donovan for an easy finish. It's 3-1 LA and a bad day so far for Hernandez, who explained in 2020 to the good folks from Extratime that he might have been a little too amped that day.
“The weekend before at Real Salt Lake I had a pretty strong game," Hernandez said. "Wondo is my roommate on the road and we were feeling tired so we go out before the match to get a 5-hour Energy. Wondo’s like ‘Listen man. There’s the normal 5-hour Energy, but there’s also one that’s like extra 5-hour Energy.’ I take it and I ball out. Because I’m a dumb soccer player I’m like ‘Oh, this is why I played so well, I’m going to do this next week.’
“So I chug this thing before the LA game. We’re at the national anthem and playing in front of 50,000 people and I realize I probably didn’t need the 5-hour Energy because my adrenaline is so high and my heart is blasting through my chest. Lo and behold the game is going on and I feel like I’m at a rave or something.”
Most teams would have folded at 3-1, but this is the Goonies. Bernardez found the net in the 44th minute and, after seven minutes of first-half stoppage time, the Quakes entered the locker room down 3-2 and with more confidence than any team should reasonably have.
As they got into the locker room, Lenhart told Hernandez with total assurance the game is already in the bag. San Jose, down 3-2, is going to win.
“I’ve never been so positive that we were gonna come back. It felt like we were up 3-2. In my mind I still remember sitting in that Stanford locker room, thinking, okay, we got this. Like, I'm not even concerned,” Wondolowski said. “Usually I'm pretty stressed. I always wear my emotions on my sleeve. You know, if we're down, I'm like getting a little bit of nervous energy. I remember just never being so calm being down. I think it was just those guys and that message and it really was something special.”
Meanwhile, David Bingham, who’s now played over 16,000 MLS minutes, was being told Busch is no longer able to play. He’d have to come in to play his third-ever professional appearance. And he’d have to do it in front of 50,000 people.
“We’re about to walk in the locker room at halftime and they go, ‘He can't see. So you're in. Go get ready,’” Bingham, who's now with the Portland Timbers, said. “Then I was just straight to business, you know? Go out on the field, get ready and then you don't really have time to think what's happening. Just go in and, and do the best you can.”
Bingham went on to make three crucial saves throughout the half that eventually gave San Jose the win. Because Lenhart is right. The Quakes were always going to win this one. Sam Cronin scored right out of halftime thanks to an excellent assist from Lenhart and then Wondolowski scored one of his eventual 171 MLS goals to put the Quakes up 4-3. It’s a typical direct destruction that leaves the Galaxy a little shell-shocked.
“For that team, we had two ways to go about this,” Hernandez said in 2020. “We’re going to try at the beginning of the match to use a scalpel and be tactical and efficient. But when push came to shove, we were going to use the hammer. We’re going right down your throat and you can either stop us or not.”
"Fitting ending to a crazy game"
Despite taking a hammer blow, the Galaxy eventually responded. They piled on chances the rest of the way and nearly found an equalizer on multiple occasions. Those near misses and a few fouls and dark arts moments from the Quakes caused frustration levels to simmer and rise. And then, gloriously, it finally boiled over.
In stoppage time, with the Galaxy threatening, Cronin went down in his own box, holding his face. You can watch the video for yourself and decide how much pain he actually felt in that moment, but one person in particular wasn’t buying Cronin’s suffering. It’s David Beckham. And David Beckham, international superstar turned MLS ambassador, had a ball at his feet. And David Beckham is really, really good at kicking a ball with his feet. And isn’t happy about losing to this team in particular and this moment in particular. So, from 30 yards away, he drop-kicked the ball…
“He punted the ball with such accuracy. He was probably about 30 yards away and hit Sam. Like, pinpoint, boom, hits Sam,” Wondolowski said.
At that point, it’s chaos the rest of the way. The Quakes rushed to confront Beckham. The Galaxy rushed to defend him. Cronin miraculously recovered as if the ball itself had mystical healing properties and rushed to join the fray.
“David also had a temper, as did Robbie, as did me,” Donovan said. “We hated losing to them. It wasn't often in those years that we would be winning a game and end up losing. So that made it…that just pissed us off. So David also didn't like losing and that happened and it was probably a fitting ending to a crazy game.”
Eventually, the wreckage cleared after the initial scrum. A few more moments of soccer occur, and then everyone gets back to what they really want to do.
A second shoving match starts up, with Beckham once again at the center. Q (given name, Quakesadus Mascotacus), a big blue kind of sort of person with the hair of a guy who’s seen one too many Grateful Dead shows and is eager to tell you about it, innocently made his way onto the field to hold up a sign letting the good folks at home know SportsCenter is up next on ESPN.
The shoving continues and drifts towards Q until eventually, we get this:
A totally absurd and wonderfully MLS image of its most iconic player going head-to-head with the blue-collar team that just got the better of him and Q, looking on with whatever emotion you want to ascribe to him.
It’s an image that caps one of the wildest games in MLS history and presents where MLS is going in that moment, where it had been and why the combination of all of those things makes for outstanding entertainment. It also gives a hint as to where the season as a whole is heading to.
The Quakes continued to rally at every available opportunity on their way towards a magical run to the Supporters’ Shield. The Galaxy would get one more shot at them that season in a game where the rivalry spilled over into the stands, several fights erupted and the Galaxy supporters’ section was escorted from the building during the game. The Quakes, of course, got a late equalizer from Wondo in a 2-2 draw.
In the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs though, the Galaxy got the final word, finally taking down the Goonies over two legs in the Western Conference Semifinals on their way to winning a second-straight MLS Cup.
“You just remember and realize that against that team, they are never out of it. There were other games in the year where we knew when we went up 1-0, it was gonna end up 1-0, 2-0, 3-0. But with them, you knew it was just going to be a war until the end,” Donovan said.
“It heightened our senses. So it was a good thing we had burned earlier in the year because it just made you really finish the game in the right way.”
Even if San Jose didn’t end up with the biggest trophy, that June 2012 edition of the Cali Clasico remains special. For not only being the start of a tradition at Stanford Stadium but for embodying the spirit of a team that went down in MLS history as one of its most colorful and thrilling groups.
“I think we embodied the city,” Hernandez said in 2020. “We tried to represent the club in a way that felt very authentic. It was blue-collar. We were willing to push ourselves as far as needed to get what we want. I think that’s something that resonated with the club, the city, the fans and that’s why that team is beloved the way it is.”