SAN JOSE — American soccer's fiercest rivalry returns to Stanford Stadium on Saturday and the San Jose Earthquakes are hoping the game changes the momentum of their season.
The Earthquakes (4-7-6) are expecting close to 50,000 fans to come out again this year for the California Clasico against the Los Angeles Galaxy (7-6-3) and a win against their in-state rival could give them a much-needed jolt.
"A game like this could turn our season around," midfielder Shea Salinas said. "Winning it would be a step in the right direction."
The Guardian newspaper in England has called the California Clasico, "perhaps the most historic and intense rivalry the league [MLS] has."
Last year's game at Stanford provided everything a soccer nut could want: 50,000 fans, a stirring comeback, a David Beckham goal off a free kick, a heel-kick goal and a scuffle between teams after time expired.
The intensity carried into the playoffs when the Galaxy upset the Earthquakes, who won the Supporters' Shield with the league's best regular-season record, in the Western Conference semifinals en route to their second straight MLS Cup. Several Galaxy fans were ejected from the second leg of the series in San Jose after altercations erupted in the stands and a smoke bomb was set off at halftime.
Salinas said the Earthquakes are viewing this week's game as opportunity to avenge last year's playoff loss.
"It's something we definitely don't forget," he said. "It's something we want to make amends for."
The Earthquakes appear to be nursing a hangover from last year's playoff ouster. They are currently eighth out of nine teams in the Western Conference, four points behind the Vancouver Whitecaps for the fifth and final playoff spot. The team recently swapped coaches, parting ways with two-time MLS Coach of the Year Frank Yallop and replacing him with chief assistant Mark Watson for the time being.
"We've got the same core group of guys as last year and we've actually added to it," Salinas said. "There's no reason why we can't do the same things we did last year. It's just the little things we need to correct and get that winning mentality back."
Watson said he expects a lift from the energy at Stanford Stadium on Saturday, but he doesn't want his players to focus on the crowd.
"For us, it's about being solid, getting everyone on the same page and being tough to break down," he said. "I think that's the key for us moving forward."
The Earthquakes could be without reigning league MVP and scoring champ Chris Wondolowski, who missed last week's game against DC United and is listed as day-to-day with a big toe contusion.
Watson said the team will miss Wondolowski's leadership if he's sidelined.
"He's a big part of us," he said. "I think the players understand that and I think when he's not in the lineup they want to do a little bit extra to make up for his absence."
NEXT GAMEEarthquakes (4-7-6) vs. Galaxy (7-6-3)
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Stanford Stadium
TV: CSN California
RADIO: KLIV (1590 AM)
NOTE: There will be a postgame fireworks show