On the eve of the biggest rivalry in MLS, the California Clasico between the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy at Stanford Stadium, a Bay Area soccer derby played out a short ways north on the Peninsula.
In front of nearly 2000 fans at Dragons Stadium on the campus of Burlingame High School, the Burlingame Dragons FC, the Quakes PDL U-23 affiliate team, topped local rivals San Francisco City FC 2-1.
"Great performance by the guys tonight," said Dragons head coach Eric Bucchere. "It was a very intelligent performance, number one, by all the guys."
The Dragons, who improved to 5-4-1 on the season, had played SFCFC two weeks earlier in the same venue and had collected a comprehensive 4-0 victory. For the rematch, the visitors were much more impressive, and Burlingame never fully wrested control of the match.
"In these derby games, it always comes down to which team plays harder and gets the details right," said Bucchere. "That's the team that usually comes out on top, and our guys got all the details right tonight."
Burlingame roared out to a 2-0 lead before halftime as Jamael Cox converted a penalty kick in the 14th minute and assisted on a goal by Danny Musovski in the 40th minute. SF City clawed one back in the 55th minute off a well-placed header, but the Dragons held on to win their third game in their last four.
Burlingame now sits in second place in the USL PDL Western Conference Central Pacific Division, four points behind leaders Fresno Fuego. The Dragons have four more games on their regular season schedule -- three at home and one on the road at nearby San Francisco City. The top two finishers in the division will advance to the Western Conference playoffs in late July.
"It's all knotted up in the standings right now," said Bucchere, "so we need to keep winning at home, and we will have all to play for."
Against SF City, as it has been for most of the season, the best player on the pitch for the Dragons was forward Jamael Cox. The former NASL professional with the Tampa Bay Rowdies proved his quality with a well taken penalty kick that screamed past a correctly diving goalkeeper and a perfectly weighted corner kick delivery into the area that teammate Musovski expertly headed home. Cox has six goals in 10 games this season -- pacing the Dragons in scoring.
"He's been a stalwart for us in the lineup," said Bucchere of his star forward, "and he brings so many intangibles to the field. Jamael is a guy that's played some serious USL minutes, and we don't have too many guys like that in our lineup."
The Dragons, like all teams in the USL PDL level of soccer in the United States, are amateurs, most on summer break from their college teams or young players trying to get their big break. According to the league's website, seventy percent of all MLS draftees through the years have PDL experience, and nearly 300 PDL alumni now play in the professional level USL. The path to the pros is one most members of the Dragons are certainly dreaming about, with Cox hoping for a second opportunity to show he belongs in the upper echelons of the U.S. soccer pyramid.
It's mostly young guys that are trying to be pros," said Bucchere. "Jamael has been a pro, and he's hungrier than ever to get back to that level. He brings leadership, obviously, and quality and pace. He's been absolutely phenomenal. I'm rooting for him, and I think somebody is going to take a chance on him, and he's going to make them really happy."
The Dragons other goal-scorer on the night is also forging ahead with plans to play professionally, as Musovski, a forward out of UNLV, is leveraging his PDL experience into training stints with multiple MLS clubs. He burst onto the Dragons scene midway through the season with a two-goal performance against LA Laguna in a 5-3 victory earlier in June. Since then he has balanced his commitment to Burlingame with training stints across the country.
"Anytime you can have a guy like that in the lineup, he is going to help you out," said Bucchere.
"He spent a week with Sporting Kansas City and is getting on a flight this Sunday to train with the Seattle Sounders," added Bucchere. "He'll come back and join the Earthquakes for a couple weeks after that. He trains with us once a week, at best, and is getting some looks from MLS. He's a joy to be around. It's not always easy for a guy to do all that and for a coach to still start him, but Danny is so unselfish, such a hard worker, and he is humble about everything. He's been a big pick-up for us."
The Dragons also feature a handful of players that have ties to the Earthquakes Academy system, and so they are all eligible candidates to receive MLS Homegrown Player contracts from the Quakes. Cal defender Josh Morton, Stanford playmaker Amir Bashti, and Georgetown goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski highlight the list. Both Morton and Bashti were important players in Burlingame's 2-1 victory over SFCFC, while Marcinkowski was not in the lineup following his call-up to the U.S. U-20 men's national team squad.
Many of the remaining players on the Dragons rosters have ties to local colleges, with SF City also boasting a lot of local talent. In fact, so many players on both sides know each other well enough that the rivalry of the derby extended to college teammates facing off against each other.
"These guys are all teammates," said Bucchere. ":his game is a celebration of Bay Area soccer. Both teams started guys from Cal, from Stanford, a bunch of USF guys were on the field -- we all know one another and so there are those personal rivalries. This was a celebration and the fans made it a great atmosphere."
Up next for the Dragons is a visit to Burlingame by the BYU Cougars, who just a week ago handed the Dragons a tough 1-0 loss on a windswept day at home. The rematch can't come soon enough for the Dragons, as they feel their season is really starting to come together. A grueling six-game road trip to open the season -- the regular season only spans 14 games total -- took a physical and mental toll on the reigning Southwest Division Champions, but a home-heavy schedule to close out the summer has breathed life into the Dragons title defense.
"The first month of the season was a grind, and we somewhat forgot what the Dragons were all about," lamented Bucchere, "but this atmosphere at home is magic -- it's family, it's community -- and we are thriving here."
Tickets are still available for the Dragons three remaining regular season games in Burlingame, and with a strong finish to the campaign, a trip to the PDL playoffs will begin Saturday, July 16.