CARSON, Calif. – After finishing seventh in the Western Conference last season, the San Jose Earthquakes have the most points in the league through 16 games this year.
It’s a surprising turnaround, but it might be more surprising to call Frank Yallop’s team underdogs at this point. Yet that’s exactly the mindset the LA Galaxy expect their Northern California rivals to have when they face off on Saturday (10 pm ET, ESPN2, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
In fact, “underdog” status might just be the secret to San Jose’s success.
“I remember when I was with San Jose, LA was always the big-market team,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said. “Both teams were run by AEG and I felt like LA got all the preferential treatment. It’s kind of the same story, same identity they have now.
“They feel like they’re the small market team and always have that underdog role and they thrive on it,” Dunivant continued. “Frank thrives on it.”
Thrive might be an understatement. The Quakes need just five more points to equal their 2011 total, and they currently sit 13 points ahead of their glitzier rivals down South.
Winners of their last three games, the reigning champions travel to a sold-out Stanford Stadium on Saturday with a new lease on life – and three superstar Designated Players.
But whatever shortfalls the Quakes may have on paper, they have made up for it with their fight. It’s a fact LA know only too well after San Jose came back from two goals down to win 3-2 on May 23 at The Home Depot Center, a result which bred their now famous motto, “Goonies never say die.”
“All [Yallop’s] teams are very similar in that they play for him very hard and those guys I know will run through a wall for that guy, and that’s how his teams always are,” Galaxy captain and former San Jose star Landon Donovan said. “That’s the kind of person he is and you want to do that for him.”
“Frank does a good job of enabling his players to be free and to go out and make plays,” Dunivant added. “Guys aren’t thinking too much. They’re going out, they’re free-flowing and they’re playing natural and that’s what Frank allows them to do.”
Donovan won his first two MLS Cups while playing for Yallop in 2001 and 2003 – the second one with Dunivant as a teammate. Yallop left San Jose after winning MLS Cup 2003, and after brief stints with Canada and the Galaxy returned to San Jose when the club was revived ahead of the 2008 season.
But aside from a playoff run in 2010, the Quakes have had limited success before this year.
“What’s different about this team is he’s had time to bring in a lot of the guys now that he wants and they’ve done well,” Donovan said. “They have a good mix of good leadership with Ramiro [Corrales], [Chris Wondolowski], Jon Busch and then they’ve got some young guys and a little pace now with [Marvin] Chávez. They’re a good team and offensively they’re a handful to deal with.”
A handful, and now in first place in MLS. San Jose have exceeded expectations so far. But at what point do they become favorites?
“They’ve kind of got an identity of being an underdog-type team,” Dunivant said. “Now that they’re in first it will be interesting to see how that changes.”