The LA Galaxy are a tad wary. Understandably so, given how it ended last time out.
Ahead of the California Clasico on Saturday, the side from SoCal remembers the most recent meeting with the San Jose Earthquakes. On May 23 the Galaxy were a goal to the good by halftime. "We played probably one of the best first halfs we played up till that point," Todd Dunivant said. Despite losing goalscorer Hector Jimenez to a red card, LA went two ahead in the 73rd minute.
Time to bunker down and hold out for the points. Except that the exact opposite happened. The Earthquakes scored three goals in the last quarter hour, the winner coming deep in added time, to somehow pull out a 3-2 victory.
It was one of four times the Quakes have scored stoppage-time winners this season. San Jose has scored 12 times after the 75th minute. "It's the trademark of their team," Dunivant said.
Trademark – and now the motto. The team has cheekily incorporated the slogan "Goonies never say die." Dunivant called it San Jose's "mantra." It's working – the 'Quakes have won three games in a row this month, with the earliest winning strike coming in the 84th minute.
"It's dangerous when you have a team like that because you can never relax," Landon Donovan warned.
Donovan, along with Dunivant and Josh Saunders, won the MLS Cup in 2003 with San Jose under Frank Yallop. (He took gigs with the Canadian national team and the Galaxy before returning to the Bay Area.) So Donovan has a bit of insight into the unwavering group mentality the coach has fostered.
Yallop's players "will run through a wall for that guy," Donovan said. "That's how his teams always are. That's the kind of person he is – that you want to do that for him."
The two players who most represent that ideal are Steven Lenhart, who first appropriated the Goonies reference for San Jose, and Alan Gordon, the former Galaxy forward. The pair are bustling, bruising strikers with a knack for crucial headed goals. Gordon, nicknamed "Flash" for his one-paced setting, has four goals and an assist in the last six games. The Earthquakes have announced Steven Lenhart Wig Night for a game against the Chicago Fire in July to celebrate his emblematic hairdo – half lion's mane, half frizzy 'fro.
"Those are two of the more physical players in the league," Dunivant said, "guys that are going to bump you and bruise you."
The Earthquakes have already sold out Stanford Stadium's 50,000 seats. Dunivant, who played for Stanford in college, estimated that the field is 70 yards across.
"Especially on this field being a smaller field they're going to be sending a lot of crosses into those guys," the left back said. "They're brave and they're getting on the end of things."
The combination of old-school target men and ferocious determination right up to the final whistle (plus, of course, the top goalscorer in MLS, Chris Wondolowski) has dragged San Jose to the top of the table. Its 33 points can't be topped in either conference.
"They've kind of got an identity of being an underdog team," Dunivant mused. "Now that they're in first it'll be interesting to see how that changes things."
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The Galaxy are used to playing the role of top dog. Consistently willing to out-spend and out-bark any other club in MLS, Los Angeles won a domineering MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield double last season.
That form didn't make it past the New Year, and the Galaxy emerged from the brief international break for Euro 2012 bottom in the West. However, three wins in a week motored the Galaxy into the last playoff spot in the conference.
The return of goalkeeper Josh Saunders from the league substance abuse and behavioral health program (for stress, he claims) has helped. LA has kept two clean sheets in the last three games, its first shutouts of the season. Another boost was the goalscoring touch of Mike Magee, who scored three goals and assisted another in the last two matches.
Coach Bruce Arena says there's no secret to the uptick in form. They're "just playing better," he said. "It's as simple as that. You can make these things all complicated, but at the end of the day it's about how you're playing."
Right now both California rivals are playing pretty well. Well enough that a playoff meeting isn't out of the realm of possibility. The Galaxy might not need to force the 'Quakes to say "die," just to say "uncle."