Landon Donovan - celebrates - Quakes
Reuters

How Landon Donovan's San Jose Earthquakes made the greatest comeback in MLS Cup Playoff history

EDITOR'S NOTE: Every day at 8 pm ET, full-match replays of MLS Classics will be released in their entirety on YouTube, Facebook, MLSsoccer.com, and the official MLS app (check out the full schedule). Among the MLS Classics: the epic 2003 Western Conference Semifinal clash between the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy.


After the LA Galaxy earned a 2-0 victory in Leg 1 of their 2003 Western Conference semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes, early Leg 2 goals from Carlos Ruiz and Peter Vagenas pushed LA's aggregate advantage to four goals and threatened to end their California Clasico rivals' comeback hopes before they even started.

Instead, they merely set the stage for the greatest rally in MLS Cup Playoff history.

"Normally, what would happen is, it would be a sense of, maybe it’s not our night, maybe it’s not our year," then-San Jose midfielder Landon Donovan recalled in a retrospective from MLSsoccer.com published last year. "But for some reason, I don’t know if anybody said anything or looked at each other, but it was like, let’s just keep going, we can still do it. It’s OK. We can score four goals in 70 minutes at home. We’ve done it before. It’s not unfathomable."

Jeff Agoos caught the Galaxy napping and hammered in a free kick, before Jamil Walker — making his pro debut — found Donovan on the break to level Leg 2 by halftime. And within the intimate setting of the Quakes' first home ground, anything was possible.

"The turning point of that tie was when the Galaxy tried to close the match out," recalled longtime Galaxy TV broadcaster Joe Tutino. "And because of the confines of Spartan Stadium being such a small field, you really don't have much space to hide."

Both the Earthquakes' second-half goals proved Tutino's point. Richard Mulrooney provided the service to the back post on each, one off a direct free kick and the other from the run of play. Walker got his first career professional goal to make it 4-3 before Chris Roner rose at the back post in the 90th minute to level the series just as time was running out on the Quakes.

With no away goals tiebreaker rule, the match went to extra time. It only took until the 96th minute for Donovan to slip in Brazilian Rodrigo Faria, who made no mistake in beating goalkeeper Kevin Hartman with a perfect finish inside the far post for the Golden Goal.

"There was an undying desire to win from San Jose," admitted Hartman. "It certainly eclipsed what we were able to put up against it." 

Donovan went on to score a Golden Goal in a 3-2 win over the Kansas City Wizards in the Western Conference Final, then struck for a brace to help the Quakes to a 4-2 win over the Chicago Fire in the 2003 MLS Cup at the LA Galaxy's home ground, what is now Dignity Health Sports Park.

It was San Jose's second title and marked the completion of a remarkable three-year managerial spell for Frank Yallop. But all that may have been fait accompli after San Jose's triumph in one of the most remarkable nights in league history.

"I think it's the best playoff game ever, I really do," said Yallop. "Because of the two teams that we're playing each other, the history we had."

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