Rebirth of L.A.-San Jose rivalry?

It was once one of the fiercest showdowns in MLS, but there are signs that the Galaxy-Quakes rivalry is on the rise once again. Getty Images

Look around MLS these days, and much of the fuel that drives the league is centered on rivalries, from the New York Red Bulls/D.C. United to the three-team cage match in Cascadia and the enmity between Houston and Dallas.

Yet when the San Jose Earthquakes play the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday in the latest installment of the California Clasico, what will be on display is a rivalry that has lost much of its luster, especially coming on the heels of last weekend's SuperClasico between the Galaxy and Chivas USA.

"It's just another game to be honest with you," said Arena last week about the San Jose match. "I don't know about the past and all that, but it's just another opponent in our conference."

San Jose defender and captain Ramiro Corrales, whose roots in the matchup trace back to 1996, added, "I don't think it's the same as it was back in the day, to be honest. It's still a rivalry. We still like to beat L.A., but for us it's just another game, another chance to get three points."

For Corrales, "back in the day" means the early 2000s, when the intensity between the Quakes and the Galaxy was without equal in MLS and went beyond the traditional So-Cal/Nor-Cal hostility. Granted, MLS was a very different league back then. There were only 10 teams for most of that period. Conference opponents played each other four times during the regular season, and possibly twice more in the playoffs, providing plenty of opportunity for animosity to build.

The ownership situation was different as well. Both teams were owned by AEG, with L.A. taking on the role of MLS glamour club and San Jose that of red-headed stepchild. This was evident in the teams' respective home venues, with L.A. eventually taking up residence in the brand new Home Depot Center while the Quakes were stuck at aging Spartan Stadium. But most importantly, the two teams were consistent MLS Cup contenders during that period.

"I think that the bigness and largeness of L.A. and everything it's about, compared with what the Bay Area is about, lends itself to rivalry," said ESPN television analyst Alexi Lalas, who won a championship as a player with L.A. in 2002, and later served as G.M. for both clubs. "It was already there, but rivalries need to be competitive. And it was in this case because San Jose had a very good team, and we went back and forth at it."

Did they ever. The teams combined to claim four MLS Cups in a five year span, beginning with the 2001 MLS Cup final, when Dwayne De Rosario's strike in extra time saw the Quakes prevail 2-1 over their southern neighbors. L.A., thanks to the addition of striker Carlos Ruiz, wrestled the trophy back in 2002. In 2003 it was San Jose's turn to take the league crown. The fact that along the way the Quakes downed L.A. by staging the mother of all playoff comebacks, recovering from four goals down on aggregate to win 5-4 in extra time in the Western Conference semis, made it all the sweeter.
The rivalry reached new heights in 2005, when San Jose hero Landon Donovan did the unthinkable, ostensibly leaving the Quakes for Bayer Leverkusen, only to come back almost immediately to MLS with the Galaxy.

"Donovan was such an integral part of San Jose and those glory years for them that when that happened that really upset a lot of fans," said L.A. defender Todd Dunivant, who has also played for San Jose. "Obviously, you'd want him on your team if you could have him. That was difficult for a lot of people to swallow, and when that happened, it intensified it even more."
The Quakes prevailed 3-0 in Donovan's first game back in San Jose as a member of the Galaxy, but it was L.A. and Donovan who had the last word, eliminating that year's Supporters' Shield winners in the playoffs, 4-2 on aggregate. L.A. later went on to claim that year's MLS Cup.

"The games were intense, it was awesome," said current San Jose forward Alan Gordon, who spent parts of six seasons with the Galaxy. "I was young then, but it was real. There were a lot of guys left over from 2003 when I got there. They never wanted to lose. That game meant everything for the season, no matter where you were in the standings."

Corrales added, "Regular season games against L.A. back in the day were like a playoff game. That's the way we looked at it. I think that's the way they did too."

Incredibly, the rivalry then went into cryogenic freeze. After years of threatening to move or sell the Quakes, AEG relocated the team to Houston. Chivas USA had just entered the league, and filled the derby vacuum for the Galaxy. When San Jose was awarded an expansion team for the 2008 season, the enmity on the field had to be recreated from scratch and laid bare an incontrovertible truth about rivalries. As important as geography, great teams, and great games are, a vastly underrated component is simple continuity. Without it, the ability for the lore and emotion of a rivalry to be passed down to succeeding generations of players and fans is compromised.

"A lot of the new guys, when we were an expansion team, didn't really realize that there was that big rivalry," said former San Jose midfielder and current assistant coach Ian Russell. "As a coaching staff, we almost had to manufacture it."

That has proved to be as difficult as it sounds. While L.A. holds a 4-3-3 edge in the series since the Quakes returned, the Galaxy has been among the elite teams in MLS the past three seasons, while San Jose has for the most part struggled. Think Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. Hearing San Jose's 1906 Ultras sing until they're black and blue in the face about how much they hate L.A. -- regardless of whom the Quakes are playing -- shows that the rivalry means more to San Jose than it does to the Galaxy.

"We had a lot of anger when the Quakes moved," said Dan Margarit, one of the founders of the 1906 Ultras. "When the team came back, we were really looking forward to playing L.A. again and showing how much we hate those guys."

That imbalance is slowly changing, however, even as Donovan last week touted the SuperClasico as the best rivalry in MLS. San Jose appears to have turned things around on the field, and while L.A. is struggling at present, it's expected that it'll play some part in the playoff race by season's end. A San Jose win on Wednesday would certainly provide an uptick in intensity.

"It's kind of our job, so to speak, to bring that [passion] back," Gordon said. "As long as we make it competitive and beat them, trust me, it will come back."

The game is gaining more traction on the L.A. side as well. "There was something broken. The rivalry was a big thing, and it was just gone," said Carlos Dimas, one of the leaders of the Angel City Brigade, a Galaxy supporters group. "But there have been incidents that have intensified the rivalry back up. There have been situations between fans. It's really starting to build up to what it was before."

Dimas cites last year's 0-0 draw in San Jose as a prime example, when L.A. forward Mike Magee deputized in goal after Josh Saunders was controversially sent off. Such events can breathe life into a flickering rivalry and increase the passion.

All that's needed now is games with more at stake. Perhaps then, a great rivalry will be made whole again.

Pearce's seamless transition: Heath Pearce admitted his head was still spinning from all that had transpired in the last week. Last Wednesday he was a member of Chivas USA. On Thursday he was a New York Red Bull, and on Saturday he delivered a solid performance in leading his new club to a 2-1 road win over Montreal. Pearce's sense of composure will be tested again on Wednesday when he'll square off against his former team.

"It's definitely going to be interesting to see them warming up on the field," Pearce said via telephone. "But once the game kicks off, it's going to be like any other game and we expect to get three points against them."

Pearce's impressive debut raises a broader question, however. How is it that some players adapt to new surroundings easily while others struggle? Pearce revealed that the Red Bulls organization has consistently checked in on him to see that his off-field needs are being taken care of. On the field, it's been a case of Pearce's skill set meshing well with that of the team.

"You can't really force chemistry in a team, but I feel like the style that I prefer to play is exactly the style that the guys here like to play," he said. "It's an extremely technical group, it's a group that likes to keep the ball, it's possession-oriented, attack with numbers. From my position, you're organizing in the back; you're putting out fires, and really try to dictate the style of play on the other team. In that sense, it makes it a lot easier to transition. If it was more of a long-ball type of system, it might take me longer to adjust. But I'm already feeling comfortable with the group."

If Pearce's assimilation proceeds apace, New York could find that the balance between defense and attack will be in greater equilibrium as the season progresses.

Sene makes his mark: Pearce isn't the only player to have adjusted quickly to new surroundings. New England Revolution forward Saer Sene has done much the same. His two goals in last weekend's 2-2 draw with Houston gave him six on the season in just 10 games, making him an early frontrunner for the league's Newcomer of the Year award.

"I'm new here, this is my first year in MLS, but it's a great group, very cool guys and a good team," he said via telephone. "The team has helped me to adapt."

Not bad for a guy who prior to arriving in New England was stuck far down the depth chart at German powerhouse Bayern Munich. Better yet, there is little in Sine's attitude to suggest that he once was on the books for one of the biggest club sides in the world.

"At Bayern, I was with 30 great players, but there was not a lot of time to play," he said via telephone. "I learned a lot at Bayern, but MLS gives me the chance to play, and show I can play."

About the only thing that is worrying Sene these days is New England's penchant for coughing up leads, something they did twice against the Dynamo. But given the team's more compelling style this season, he's had few complaints.

"We're a good team, but we're a young team," he said. "Sometimes we make mistakes because we are young, but we've shown we can play football. We are strong when we keep the ball."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.