With the California Clasico taking center stage in this weekend's slate of MLS matches, the rivalry between the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, typically more important to the fans in the stands, has been embraced more than ever by the players on the field.
And Saturday night, when over 50,000 fans pack into Stanford Stadium, just up the Peninsula from the Quakes regular home, the atmosphere is expected to elevate the intensity of what annually is a crowd-pleaser for soccer aficionados across the Bay Area.
"I think it's special because in my biased opinion, it is the best rivalry in MLS," said Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear in the days leading up to the match. "When you look at the history over the years, they've had so many important games, upsets, playoffs, last-minute winners, drama, players getting into each others faces, which goes along with all rivalries. But this one is more of it, more storied."
San Jose and Los Angeles -- two of the original ten franchises when MLS began play in 1996, have contested games in the regular season and postseason that forever live in the lore supporters on each side hold dearly. The Quakes first MLS Championship in 2001 came against the Galaxy at Crew Stadium in Ohio. LA upset the Supporters' Shield winners San Jose in the 2005 playoffs on its way to an MLS Cup victory, and repeated the feat in 2012 to break the hearts of Earthquakes loyalists yet again.
In fact, since the Earthquakes returned to MLS ahead of the 2008 season -- its former incarnation unceremoniously relocated to Houston by then owners AEG (who also owned the Galaxy, then and now) two years earlier -- they have share a record of 8-8-8 in 24 regular season contests against LA. The Galaxy have won three MLS Cups in those years, setting the bar very high in the rivalry with the Quakes, but San Jose has not often backed down from the challenge.
"The players might tell you that it is just another game," added Kinnear, "but when San Jose plays LA, there is a little more drama to it."
Since 2012, the Earthquakes have hosted the Galaxy at Stanford Stadium as part of its annual Summer of Soccer celebration in the Bay Area. An impressive fireworks display follows the annual game, and in most years, the action on the field was equally as explosive.
That inaugural year, as the Quakes were bulldozing their Western Conferences foes en route to a Supporters' Shield winning campaign, San Jose overcame a two-goal deficit to the Galaxy in front of a then record crowd for a stand-alone Quakes game to capture a dramatic 4-3 victory over David Beckham and his LA mates. Current Quakes forward Chad Barrett was on the field that night for the Galaxy, and he recalls how influential the full stadium was on the result.
"It's exciting, because it shows you what this community can produce," said Barrett to Center Line Soccer on Thursday. "With the new stadium we have built here and all the season tickets that they've sold, everything together is what you can envision San Jose someday becoming. To have 50,000 strong, the extra energy they give us feeds us as the ends of games. And when you need that goal to win, they are just urging you on."
In 2013, the Quakes and Galaxy topped the previous year's affair, as ten-man San Jose miraculously came back from a one-goal deficit in stoppage time to score twice and win 3-2 on Alan Gordon's goal heard 'round the world. Shea Salinas, who this week signed a new contract that will keep him with the Quakes for many seasons to come, scored the first goal in the comeback and assisted on Gordon's game-winner minutes later.
"A lot of the Stanford games stand out," said Shea Salinas to Center Line Soccer. "We've come back from two goals twice, with the most memorable one coming in 2013. Getting a goal and hearing the reaction from the crowd, that was by far the most memorable game I've ever played in."
The Galaxy would win in 2014, but the Quakes bounced back last season for a convincing 3-1 victory that came after San Jose went down a goal, but recovered nicely to earn the win. A club-record crowd of 50,422 filled the stands for that match, and this season, the Earthquakes will hope to reach another high-water mark in attendance as they continue their push in a highly competitive Western Conference.
"Rivalries are first most a fan thing," continued Salinas, "but for us, especially this game, we are both in the middle of the table right now, looking for points, and the Stanford game has 50,000 fans cheering, so it makes it more meaningful. We need three points; we need to move up the table."
Can another record crowd at Stanford Stadium serve to turn the tide on the field in the favor of the Quakes? Barrett, who has played in his fair share of rivalry matches as part of the Cascadia Cup in the Pacific Northwest over two season with the Seattle Sounders, firmly believes a big crowd can provide a significant lift for the home team.
"That plays such a big role," said Barrett. "That's such a big reason that Seattle has been so successful is because of the huge support that they have there, same in Portland. They show up in masses and it's really impressive. I feel that one day it will be like that here too in the same capacity."
On the field and in the stands: The California Clasico never disappoints.