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LA, San Jose's California Clasico one of MLS's historic, compelling rivalries

Fatai Alashe
San Jose's Fatai Alashe and Steven Gerrard shake hands in March.

The California Clasico occupies a unique place in the MLS rivalry landscape.

The three-team Cascadia cage match (Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps) does plenty to take up the league's rivalry oxygen. The budding battles between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC also get plenty of attention. Yet the now-triannual meetings between the LA Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes are special in their own way, if for no other reason than the meandering path the rivalry has taken.

This is a rivalry that has ebbed, flowed and then dried up completely, only to rage once again. Ahead of Sunday's resumption of hostilities at StubHub Center, it still resonates.

"It's probably the game that we circle on our calendar when the schedule comes out in January," said Ethan Ruiz, a capo with the Galaxy supporters group the Angel City Brigade. "Whether it's home, away or preseason, it's a rivalry game in every essence of the word. With regard to the fan rivalry, that's been up to 11 the past few years. It's definitely something every single fan and Galaxy supporter group is very passionate about."

Dan Margarit, one of the founders of the San Jose supporters group the San Jose Ultras, added: "It's still No. 1. I think it will always be like this against the Galaxy. We [as fans] can only do so much, but we want to give 110 percent in the stands and sing as loud as we can and be better than them. We represent San Jose, we represent the Earthquakes and we've got to keep going no matter what."

It's practically written into the state constitution that fans of Bay Area teams must loathe their L.A. counterparts and vice versa. The California Clasico is no exception, but the roots run deep thanks to a history as rich and incident-filled as any in MLS.

Of course, there was a time when San Jose-LA was the rivalry in MLS: in the early-2000s when the two teams combined for four MLS Cups in a five-year span. Included in that period was the 2001 MLS Cup final in which the Quakes prevailed after Dwayne De Rosario's extra-time strike. Then there was San Jose's back-from-the-dead playoff comeback in 2003. The Galaxy responded by eliminating the Supporters' Shield-winning Quakes in the 2005 playoffs, on the way to its second MLS Cup.

It's also a rivalry with a unique endurance. The Galaxy's playoff victory in 2005 proved to be the death knell, or so it seemed at the time, as the Quakes moved to Houston the next season. At that point, the rivalry was razed to the ground. When the Quakes returned in 2008, rather than instantly reignite, what took place was a slow burn. The league did what it could to promote the Galaxy's rivalry with now-defunct Chivas USA. The fan culture in San Jose was also fractured to a degree. The wisecracking approach of the Casbah supporters group was overtaken by the more-in-your-face style of the San Jose Ultras.

But eventually the California Clasico burst into flames. There was the 2011 match in which the Galaxy's Mike Magee excelled as an emergency goalkeeper in a 0-0 draw, as well as Alan Gordon's shirtless celebration in 2013 when his stoppage-time winner capped a 3-2 San Jose victory. The Galaxy continued its post-2003 playoff hex, eliminating the Supporters' Shield-winning Quakes on their home turf in 2012.

Some aspects of the rivalry have remained constant as well. From the beginning, the Galaxy was perceived -- with considerable justification -- as the league's fair-haired franchise, sparing no expense on players and facilities. The Quakes on the other hand played in the aptly named Spartan Stadium during its first MLS incarnation, and then moved to the even more amenity-challenged Buck Shaw Stadium when it returned. While San Jose now calls the sparkling Avaya Stadium home, that hasn't done much to alter the "Haves vs. Have-nots" vibe.

"I think some of our guys would enjoy swapping paychecks with some of their guys," said San Jose manager Dominic Kinnear. "It's just a fact, reality. When you look at the makeup of each team, it's put together a lot differently. And the fans recognize that."

Yet ahead of Sunday's match, it feels like there is something missing from the rivalry, and not just because the Quakes' fortunes have faltered since that lightning-in-a-bottle campaign of 2012.

Go down through the years, and there is no shortage of villains. You had the Quakes' Troy Dayak and LA's Carlos Ruiz involved in a tunnel fracas in 2003. There was Landon Donovan tormenting the Galaxy, only to join up with them and return the favor to the Quakes on numerous occasions. Then you had the "Bash Brothers," Gordon and Steven Lenhart, grappling with Omar Gonzalez. Those matchups, and hints of nastiness, are tougher to find now.

"I remember in 2012 when [Lenhart] used to get booed every time he touched the ball," said San Jose midfielder Simon Dawkins, who was red carded in the season's first edition of the California Clasico back in March. "I don't see that now."

Two clubs which share a common foundation meet for the first time this season when the San Jose Earthquakes play host to the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday evening at Avaya Stadium. The teams are separated by seven points in the Western Conference.

It's a development that is understandable. Both teams have undergone considerable turnover in the past few years, and the institutional memory on both sides isn't what it once was. Injuries have prevented Lenhart's involvement for a couple of years now. Gonzalez is now with Pachuca; that has led to some mental gymnastics on the part of the fans.

"I think they're all villains," Ruiz said about the Quakes players. "There's just that much hatred and passion that we have for that one particular team. Yeah, when they had Gordon and Lenhart that hatred was more for this person and this person, but as a team, we just don't like them at all."

Gordon is in the unique situation of having played on both sides of the rivalry, and is now back for his second stint with the Galaxy. And while he acknowledges that there is a shortage of villains, the enmity on the playing side hasn't died out completely.

"For some of us, A.J. DeLaGarza still hates San Jose, and this time of year we're always razzing A.J. about past plays and stuff like that," he said. "They're giving me a hard time about old games and talking about championships. There is still some bad blood and some emotions tied to this. Mike Magee has been a part of this in some important games. There is still a part of the team that really does get this rivalry. It's still alive."

But, as is the case with most rivalries, it is the fans that do the most to drive the passion. They are the constant, and can be counted on more than anyone to pass on the memories of heartbreaking defeats and euphoric victories.

"In the end it's all about the club, the tradition, the history," said Margarit. "It all comes down to that. It's NorCal against SoCal."

Twenty years in, the matchup makes for an enduring and compelling rivalry.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.


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