At one point the Cali Clasico was the best rivalry in MLS, the cream of the crop for a growing league. Now, it’s been relegated to a mere sideshow to the league’s new rivalries. As the clasico has lost its staying power, so has the two teams involved.
Both the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes are MLS royalty. They are amongst the original clubs, but are now both relics.
This weekend’s edition was a fun watch for everyone but Quakes fans. It laid bare the problems of the club in the modern landscape of MLS. In addition, it was a shame for the club as even at their worst, they have always made sure to care about this fixture.
Over the past 10 years, the MLS has grown in ways that were unimaginable to those original clubs. Both the Galaxy and Quakes are now left in the dust by the new elites of the league. In their own unique ways, the rivals are relegated to the past.
The once mighty Cali Clasico still remains important to the two fanbases, but for the rest of the league, not so much. Both clubs are now in danger of being forgotten by a highly ambitious league.
While the Quakes have played in some high profile matches, including MLS Cup finals, nothing has ever meant as much as the Cali Clasico. It’s the highlight of every season, no matter if the Quakes are in the playoff hunt or bottom of the league.
Even though the team lost in a terrible manner this weekend, one needs only to look at how fans packed the arena at Stanford to see how much this rivalry means. The Ultras were in full force, displaying one of the best tifos that MLS has seen. No matter the result, it means the world to a fanbase that has watched their team decline for close to a decade.
In seasons, such as this one, where the Quakes are truly awful, this game has always been the most important. In Almeyda’s terrible first season, the Quakes still defeated the Galaxy 3-0 at Stanford, before eventually collapsing at the end of the season. It’s always been a way to exorcize demons and for one moment, pretend all is well in Quakesland.
To be honest, the Quakes haven’t had too many great seasons since their return to the Bay. However, in that magical 2012 season, the Stanford edition of the rivalry was one of the greatest matches in MLS history. In addition, the Quakes have won an MLS Cup against the Galaxy in 2001, making this rivalry unlike any other in the league.
All these reasons make this such a special occasion for fans, as it’s a way to focus all their energy onto one match. Losing in this clasico hits fans harder than any other result and the players seem to feel the same way. In a league that, at times, feels inauthentic, this is one of the few rivalries that is natural and powerful.
Since MLS’ inception, this rivalry has meant everything to fans. In seasons where the team was awful, it was the best way to redeem it and when they are good, it’s a way to flex on your rivals.
As MLS has continued to develop into North America’s premier soccer league, certain teams have fallen to the side. Two former giants in the Galaxy and Quakes are now playing second fiddle to the league’s new kingpins.
While the Quakes have built their identity through “moneyball”, the Galaxy were supposed to be the flashiest soccer team, resembling the Showtime Lakers. For most of the league’s history, that was the case. The Galaxy pulled off the most important transfer in league history with the signing of David Beckham and continued to add stars like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.
However, since the mid 2010s, the Galaxy have become the Clippers to LAFC’s Lakers. LAFC are the premier club of the MLS with so many star signings, it’s honestly hard to keep up with. While the Galaxy have struck gold in certain acquisitions, it’s hard to not see their failing in keeping with LAFC.
If the Galaxy were the showtime Lakers of early MLS, then the Quakes were the Dr. J 76ers. A team built on grit and smart moves surrounding one talent.
That talent for the Quakes was always, across their MLS history, one of Donovan or Wondo. The rest of the roster was to be filled out by tough smart veterans. These veterans, like Troy Dayak or Steven Lenhart, became club legends who pushed the club to new heights.
However, this success with what is essentially the equivalent to moneyball, has become a dinosaur in modern MLS. It’s not a matter of spending a lot of money, not entirely at least, it’s that the team’s transfer strategy yields more busts than stars. For every Espinoza, the club has transferred in 10 Henok Goitoms.
MLS continues to expand and will surely explode after the 2026 World Cup. However, for two of the league’s original clubs, they may be doomed to remain in the past.
It’s hard to put into words just how much this one game means for two rival fanbases. However, as MLS continues to grow, this rivalry seems to be shelved in favor of others. Marking a sad decline for the league’s original rivalry.
Featured image: Bay Area News Group