Earthquakes face old friend, new rival
Reunions can be fun, but enough is enough. Taking on a former teammate has practically become a weekly event for the San Jose Earthquakes these days.
Two weeks ago, the 'Quakes flew five hours to New Jersey to exchange pleasantries with former captain Jeff Agoos before downing his new club, the MetroStars, with a 1-0 victory.
Last weekend, Dominic Kinnear's side welcomed back Richard Mulrooney with a warm ovation and plenty of slaps on the back. Unfortunately, they also had to watch their old friend leave the match in the first half with an ACL tear.
On Saturday, the biggest reunion of them all will take place when San Jose makes its way down the Left Coast to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center. And we're not talking about defender Todd Dunivant or backup goalkeeper Steve Cronin.
The Earthquakes will be facing Landon Donovan. Read that again, Bay Area fans. It's a sentence you never thought you'd have to read. You've known this match was coming since late March, but that still doesn't mean you're not gagging over it, does it?
The fact that Donovan left his club of four years to make good on his contract with German side Bayer Leverkusen shortly after the 2004 campaign was understandable. 'Quake fans wished him well in a genuine fashion, knowing that it was something that he not only had to do, but was destined to do from the moment he landed in San Jose back in March of 2001 when he was still a teenager with only four caps with the U.S. National Team to speak of. When he said that he'd "be back someday" during his farewell press conference, you probably felt that it'd happen after he played in another two World Cups, had kids of his own, and was closer to the end of his career rather than the beginning.
If Donovan had come back to Major League Soccer in 2010 and signed with the Galaxy it'd be hard enough. That is, after all, the Earthquakes' most bitter rival. But to do it in 2005? It was seemingly unfathomable only three months ago. Now that the season is nearly a quarter done and they've seen Donovan play like his usual self for the much-improved Galaxy, the wounds have probably started to heal.
However, one look at him in his Gold number 10 jersey will make it hurt all over again. It'll inspire the same tormented feelings that Red Sox fans had watching Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs wear the pinstripes of the hated Yankees. Or, better yet, it might seem like what fans in the Bay Area felt in 1995 when Deion Sanders left the San Francisco 49ers after winning a Super Bowl and signed with the Dallas Cowboys, which at the time were the two best teams in the NFL.
"I don't even want to watch," said one longtime Earthquake fan who requested that his name not be used. "It sickens me to see Landon in another kit. If he wanted out of here so badly, he should have just gone straight to L.A. rather than waste his time in Germany."
While the real litmus test of how the Earthquake fans are feeling these days won't come until Donovan and the Galaxy invade Spartan Stadium on June 25, it'll be interesting to see how his former teammates react to playing against the player who was most responsible for them winning two MLS Cups in a span of three years, and was a very well-liked teammate in what used to be arguably the best locker room in the league.
Eddie Robinson, for one, says that there won't be any hard feelings.
"As far as the players and coaches go, I can tell you that there is no animosity whatsoever," said the 26-year-old defender, who was a teammate of Donovan's in each of his four years in San Jose. "He needs to be happy. We all do, really. And being in Los Angeles close to his family is more about what this is about, not about him wanting to play for another team."
Robinson is right. Donovan was the toast of the town in San Jose, and was very comfortable playing there. From the minute he signed in 2001, then-head coach Frank Yallop and Kinnear treated him exceptionally well. Both coaches are quick to say that Donovan was never a problem and was always amongst the best players in training as well as in the matches. He never big-timed anyone, and was more than generous with his time off-the-field for the good of both the organization and the league as a whole.
Donovan has always been close with his family and looked for ways to sneak down to Southern California whenever he could to spend time with his Mom. But that escalated when he started dating actress Bianca Kajlich shortly after the World Cup in the summer of 2002. To accommodate Donovan, the Earthquake coaches would often allow him to trek down to L.A. after his match on a Saturday and stay until late Monday night or early Tuesday morning in many cases. He would even miss trainings to do this. While this might have seemed like star-treatment, it was never a problem because of the way he would respond to it.
"Landon was always very grateful and would work that much harder for us after getting an off-day," Kinnear told me in January. "His teammates didn't have a problem with it because he was in many ways the perfect teammate and never made himself out to be above the group."
That's why when Donovan was able to come back to MLS after a short stint in Germany over the winter and land in Los Angeles, many of his former teammates knew that's what he wanted because he'd finally be able to live with Kajlich.
"The way it went down was a little shady, but that doesn't have anything to do with Landon and all of us who are friends with him," said Robinson, alluding to the fact that San Jose wasn't able to re-acquire Donovan in March since his allocation was traded away in the Ricardo Clark trade on Draft Day in January. "I know Landon cares about us, and we care about him. We are all friends now and will be after the game. Once we start the match, though, no one is friends.
"I mean, this is San Jose-L.A., first and foremost. It's a rivalry where you simply go all-out. We don't ever want to lose, but to lose to them is even worse. And I'm sure they feel the same way."
The Galaxy have dominated this rivalry, sporting a 26-12-5 record over the past nine seasons. Despite this advantage, it has tightened up in recent years, as the Galaxy's has only held a 6-5-3 advantage since 2001. In addition, L.A. fans probably still haven't recovered from that unlikely 5-2 overtime victory in the 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals when the Earthquakes came into the match down two goals on aggregate and four after only 13 minutes of the second and final match at Spartan Stadium. It's just one of the many epic matches between the clubs over the years.
"It's unbelievable, really, because we always end up playing them more than anyone," said Robinson. "We get them in the U.S. Open Cup. We get them in the playoffs. It just always seems to happen. This year, we are supposed to play four times, but it'll probably be closer to seven times with everything else. That's way this game is so important. It sets the tone. Whoever loses on Saturday will say, 'No more' before the next meeting.
"It's a big game in the conference, plus both teams need to win to keep pace with New England. Someone has to."
Had FC Dallas not triumphed on Wednesday night in a 2-1 victory over Colorado, San Jose would have a chance to move into first-place with a victory -- something that seemed improbable going into the season considering all the players they have lost. Yet, despite not having Agoos, Donovan, Mulrooney, Ronnie Ekelund and Ramiro Corrales, San Jose has a four-game unbeaten streak to run its record to 2-1-4 after an 0-1-2 start. Now that Troy Dayak (ACL) is lost for the season and injuries have sidelined Brian Ching and Brian Mullan, it'll be even more of a test for this squad to keep up its strong play.
"It hurts losing guys, but we're lucky to have proven players stepping in," said Robinson. "Ryan Cochrane had a great rookie year last year, so we're not worried about how he'll play in the back. Then you have Alejandro Moreno, who is always a dangerous player, and will be playing against his old team. There's no question he'll score goals for us."
For this week, though, it'll be more about stopping the opponent from finding the back of the net. When you try and do that against the Galaxy, it all starts with defending Donovan, which is something the Earthquake defenders should know a little about from all those days at training sessions.
"The biggest thing with Landon is that he is very smart," said Robinson, who will likely spend a lot of time marking his friend on Saturday. "He does not waste a single run or a single pass. Everything he does is for a reason, either to help himself get the ball or to help a teammate have space. You can't do anything stupid when defending him or else you'll get burned because he can beat you on the dribble or by spotting another player and slipping him the ball behind the defense."
The Earthquake defenders should know better, as they are used to watching Donovan weave his magic from about 30 yards behind him. This time they'll be the ones trying to knock him off his game and, therefore, ruining yet another reunion with a former teammate.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.