Best Rivalry in MLS? San Jose Earthquakes say California Clasico vs. LA Galaxy has everything

SAN JOSE, Calif. – For fans in London, New York, Milan or Madrid, there is a choice to be made regarding which team one supports in those city’s soccer rivalries.

As far as the California Clasico goes, it’s very simple: Geography trumps all. If you live near the San Jose Earthquakes, you learn to chant “Beat LA!” in elementary school. If you’re within driving distance of the LA Galaxy’s home, you learn to respond to your northerly neighbors in kind.

And if you’re a transplant to the area, it doesn’t take long to join the fray – on whichever is the appropriate side, of course.

“Before I got here, I actually didn’t really know that this was our big rivalry, until we played them in preseason, and everyone was like, ‘Screw Galaxy’ and all that,” San Jose Earthquakes rookie midfielder Fatai Alashe told reporters Thursday. “You learn pretty fast, and now I know.”

Alashe will get a firsthand indoctrination to the real California Clasico on Saturday at Stanford Stadium (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE), when the Galaxy and Quakes square off for the 68th time in league play (including 10 postseason matches). Longtime San Jose fans can still talk about their astounding 2003 playoff comeback from a 4-0 aggregate scoreline to triumph 5-4 on their way to a second MLS Cup in three seasons. The Galaxy, meanwhile, can point to upending the playoff runs of Supporters’ Shield-winning Quakes sides in 2005 and 2012.

But two of the most memorable meetings between LA and San Jose actually took place at Stanford Stadium, where the Quakes stormed back from two-goal deficits in 2012 and 2013 to record shocking victories.

“A lot of it has to do with the games that have been played,” said Quakes captain Chris Wondolowski, a Danville, California native. “A lot of epic battles, epic games, playoff games, comebacks, a lot of different things like that. And then, being from the same state, NorCal vs. SoCal type thing, and that goes across all sports – Giants-Dodgers, Warriors-Lakers, along those lines as well.”

Indeed, in some ways teams from California’s opposite poles serve as proxies for a fight that has lingered almost from the moment it became the 31st state in 1850; during the 165 years since, California has weathered a steady drumbeat of unsuccessful partition schemes.

The Pico Act of 1859 – which would have split the state in two along the 36th parallel, a line heading due west from Las Vegas and landing at the Pacific Ocean roughly midway between Monterey and San Luis Obispo – actually passed the state legislature and was signed by then-Gov. John B. Weller. Only a failure to act by Congress in the wake of the secession crisis following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 prevented the future metropolis of Los Angeles from being located in what was going to be known as the Territory of Colorado.

So when baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A. in 1958 – and the New York Giants quickly followed suit to San Francisco – it was only natural that fans of the two areas would carry their enmity over into the sporting realm.

That NorCal-vs.-SoCal status quo also got a boost when matchups that could have been natural rivalries within the same geographic area – think 49ers-Raiders, or Angels-Dodgers, or A’s-Giants – failed to generate as much heat due to being kept in separate leagues or divisions. For Giants fans, it’s just natural to care more about how their club matches up against the Dodgers (whom San Francisco will face 19 times this year) rather than the A’s (with whom they have a mere six interleague dates).

In the specific case of the Galaxy and Quakes, it doesn’t hurt that the two teams are stocked with so many rich rivalry ingredients to draw from.

“You have to have the right flavor involved, and back in the day, there were the right antagonists on both teams,” said Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear, who grew up in Fremont from the age of 3 and worked San Jose’s sideline as an assistant or head coach from 2001 through their 2005 decampment to Houston. “Once the fans get involved, it adds a little spice to the game. I’ve always thought that this one was the best one. It’s probably got the most history – upsets, drama, good players on both sides, players going back and forth. It has everything to make good storylines.”

Quakes midfielder Shea Salinas concurs with that assessment. The 29-year-old, an original San Jose draft pick in 2008, was plucked by Philadelphia and then Vancouver in successive Expansion Drafts before finding his way back to the Quakes in 2012.

“This is the biggest rivalry I’ve been in,” Salinas told MLSsoccer.com this week. “As players, you try not to look at games as rivalries. But our fans, our front office, they definitely take this game a little more seriously than the others. That transcends into the players, and we feel that as well. The 3-2 game two years ago at Stanford, where we scored two goals in the 92nd and 93rd minutes –  that was still the loudest stadium I’ve ever been in, and the most fun I’ve had during a soccer game. . . .

“It’s been cool to be a part of it, and hopefully we can have a few more like that at Stanford Stadium.”

The commonly held view in the North is that Bay Area fans take the rivalry more seriously than their Southern counterparts. But JJ Koval, who attended Galaxy matches at the Rose Bowl and the then-Home Depot Center before moving north to play for Stanford, disputes that notion.

“I think that’s false,” Koval told MLSsoccer.com. “I don’t think so at all. I think it’s a very strong rivalry that means a lot to both sides. There’s a lot of pride that comes with it.”

So, Wondolowski was asked, do Koval and Steven Lenhart, the team’s other SoCal transplant, take a lot of grief in the locker room because of where they grew up?

“Not really,” Wondolowski said. “They’re living here, they’re paying rent here, so they’re NorCal right now.”