Will LAFC end the California Clasico? The LA Galaxy, San Jose won't let it
When the final whistle sounds at this weekend's "California Clasico" between the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy, it will mark the end of an era of sorts. For the better part of two decades, the two sides have battled it out for supremacy in the Golden State. But starting next season, the rivalry oxygen in California will become thinner.
Los Angeles FC will enter the league and with it, questions will be raised as to what it means for the Cali Clasico's future. Will it continue on as it always has, or will it diminish and be left in the wake of the nascent L.A. Derby?
Without question, the matchup between the Galaxy and the Quakes has been one of the league's most enduring rivalries and it has lasted because it boasts all of the necessary ingredients. There is regional tribalism, a clash of cultures, some epic games and many fantastic players. Titles have been won and lost at the other's expense as well, starting in 2001 when Dwayne De Rosario's overtime winner in the MLS Cup final gave San Jose the win over LA. The two sides would end up winning four MLS Cups between them in a five-year period.
The two teams also played arguably the most incredible game in the league's history, one that saw the Quakes come back from four goals down on aggregate to prevail in the 2003 Western Conference semifinals. Then in 2005, there was the roundabout move of Landon Donovan from San Jose to the Galaxy, which inspired one Quakes fan to make a Donovan piñata -- complete with receding hairline -- for his fellow fans to take a whack at. And yes, Donovan got the last laugh in leading LA past the Quakes in that year's playoffs and on to MLS Cup.
"When we played San Jose or vice versa, when I was in San Jose and we played LA, you knew it was going to be a great game," Donovan told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "If you played an East Coast team that you played twice a year and at home only once, it's not a big deal. This always felt more special."
The rivalry even survived San Jose's relocation to Houston, which resulted in a two-year period bereft of MLS soccer in the Bay Area. Since the Quakes' return in 2008, the Cali Clasico has enjoyed even more stellar moments, whether memorable games at Stanford Stadium or the 2012 playoff encounter that saw the Galaxy eliminate the Supporters Shield-winning Quakes on the way to their fourth MLS Cup.
Granted, 2018 won't be the first time that MLS has had two L.A. teams. Back in 2005, Chivas USA entered the league and for a time, its matches with the Galaxy seemed to take on more importance, albeit aided by the Quakes' aforementioned hiatus. But LAFC looks poised to set down roots that Chivas USA never could. The new team will have its own stadium, for one, and also possesses the kind of funding and attention that Chivas USA could only dream of.
Yet the degree to which the budding Galaxy-LAFC rivalry will soon take center stage is a matter of opinion. There is also the possibility that if Sacramento gets an MLS expansion team, which is looking increasingly likely, the rivalry's passion could be diluted further.
"I think that's the fun part of rivalry games; you can have more than one," said Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski. "But I think there will always be that passion and fire against the Galaxy, and the Clásico has always provided good games."
But there is only so much rivalry bandwidth to go around, and LAFC already is eating some of it up. That looks set to increase as LAFC gets ever closer to its debut and, eventually, it's first match against the Galaxy.
"If the first rivalry week is, say, next April, it's going to be LA vs. LA, right? It's not going to be LA vs. San Jose," said Donovan. "So that will impact it a little bit. I don't think it impacts anything from the San Jose perspective. But from the Galaxy perspective, [the focus on LAFC] is already happening. They've already changed, things and they're adjusting to LAFC based on that."
It's instructive then to take a look east and see what the arrival of New York City FC has done to another storied MLS rivalry: the Atlantic Cup matchup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls. The two teams had some massive battles in the league's early years, although it was D.C. that had the upper hand over the team then known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Of late, the Red Bulls have been on top thanks to two Supporters Shield triumphs in the past four seasons and claiming two of the past three postseason encounters. Then there were the wacky incidents, including Alecko Eskandarian's goal celebration in 2006 that ended up with him taking a sip out of a can of Red Bull before spitting it out in front of United's bench. Those memories -- and the emotions that came with it -- are still evident, even in the wake of NYCFC's arrival.
"The atmosphere, it's still electric," said Donald Wine, a field team member of the DCU Supporters group, the Screaming Eagles. "Both teams want to beat the other, both sets of fans hate the other. It's still MLS's original big rivalry, and in my biased opinion, it's still the best rivalry because of the long history of hate between the two teams and the big time games that have come out of this rivalry. That's still there, and it hasn't dissipated.
"People get hyped for those games on both sides and it's always a date that is circled on the calendar when the schedule comes out."
But it's a rivalry that has been shunted aside of late, at least at the league level. Rivalry Week may be a marketing effort for the most part, but it's notable that in both instances this season, the Red Bulls were matched up against NYCFC while D.C. United faced the Philadelphia Union back in late June and will go up against New England this Saturday. The next encounter between the Red Bulls and DCU will take place on Sept. 27, a Wednesday, making it tougher for away fans to make the trip.
Granted, both New York teams looked poised to make the playoffs while D.C. United has struggled, but such moves at league HQ haven't gone unnoticed by fans of the Red Bulls and DCU.
"I think it's airbrushing the history for us," said Steven Ferrezza, a capo and board member of the Empire Supporters Club, a Red Bulls supporters group. "The league is trying to force this New York vs. New York thing. What Cascadia is now, we were that back in 1996 when it was MLS 1.0. We were the main rivalry in the league, and now the league is just sweeping us under the rug. It's like there isn't enough money between New York and D.C.
"We felt the same way when Philly came into the league and they tried forcing a rivalry between us and Philly. It's not a natural thing. Rivalry comes from years of playing each other and going after each other. You just can't manufacture it overnight.
"I still view D.C. United as our main rival. I always like to say that us and D.C. are like Liverpool and Manchester United, and us and NYCFC are like Liverpool and Everton. You've got your local rival that's right there, but you'll always hate United more."
Yet there seems something inevitable about the rise of these intracity rivalries and the lessening of what was there before. It also seems only natural that such an emphasis will result in the loss of some institutional memory. Initially, new fans won't know, and may not care to know about the rivalries that helped kick-start the league.
"It's the risk that you run when you're adding teams in the same area," said Donovan. "New LAFC fans will never understand what L.A. vs. San Jose was. That's the part of being a young league. If you go to Germany, everything is so ingrained and institutionalized. Even if you're a new fan to Dortmund, they've known about Dortmund vs. Schalke forever. Over time in MLS that won't happen that people forget, but for now it will a little bit."
Of course, the NorCal/SoCal dynamic will likely give the Cali Clasico some needed fuel. On-field success, something that has eluded both teams this season, will help as well. But ultimately, just like it has with the Atlantic Cup, keeping the rivalry flame alive will come down to the passion of the fans.
"The San Jose/LA rivalry has developed naturally," said Donovan. "It hasn't felt contrived in any way. It's always been there. They're Quakes fans who will drive down this weekend for the game, who have seen this matchup 30 times in their life over 17 years. No player can say that. That makes it special."
And enduring, too.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.