When the San Jose Earthquakes pulled up stakes and departed for Houston after the 2005 season, the thinking was that the San Francisco Bay Area had become the Forbidden Zone of MLS. As it turns out, it was merely a Superfund site, with local owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher applying some industrial strength cleanser to the market and acquiring an expansion franchise.
Now, 30 months after their last game, the Quakes will return to league play against Los Angeles in the nightcap of an MLS Primetime Thursday doubleheader (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360). And while expectations are low for the first-year side, they can't do much worse than the Galaxy's season-opening disaster in Colorado, one that saw the self-proclaimed "jewel of MLS" get hammered, 4-0.
Five story lines to follow
1. The return of the California Clasico
There was a time when the San Jose/L.A. rivalry was the best in the league. Not only did the fans and players hate each other, but from 2001 until 2005, the two teams annually slugged it out for the MLS crown, with each team winning two championships in that span. The two sides even squared off in the 2001 MLS Cup final, with the Quakes prevailing 2-1 in overtime. Of course, Galaxy fans are quick to remind their northern neighbors that it was L.A. that sent San Jose into purgatory by dumping them out of the 2005 playoffs.
Given that the Quakes are an expansion team -- and with the Galaxy playing like one -- replicating such intensity seems far-fetched. But fans have long memories, and in light of the perpetual NoCal-SoCal rivalry, it won't take much to stoke the embers and return the passion to the California Clasico.
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2. Revenge, Canadian style
In 2007, Frank Yallop endured a season in hell as head coach of the Galaxy. Injuries and some questionable personnel decisions sabotaged L.A.'s campaign, and with David Beckham's arrival, the media were on hand to record every misstep. At season's end, the Galaxy and Yallop parted ways, with the Canadian returning to the Quakes, whom he led to championships in 2001 and 2003. While Yallop insists that Thursday's game is "just another three points we're trying to get," human nature suggests otherwise. You can bet that the San Jose manager will feel an extra bit of satisfaction if his side can get a good result against the Galaxy.
3. A Ruud awakening
Welcome to MLS, Ruud Gullit. The global soccer icon was thought to be the kind of coach who could handle Beckham-mania better than his predecessor and get L.A. back to the playoffs. That may yet turn out to be true, but the Dutchman endured quite an MLS baptism last week, as his side capitulated to a Colorado team missing nearly half of its regular lineup. The turning point was a dubious penalty kick awarded to Colorado in the second half that turned a tight game into a rout. Now it's left to Gullit to try and mend his team's psyche ahead of Thursday's match.
"It can't get worse than what it was last week," said Gullit of the match ahead. "The penalty knocked us back, but even decisions like that, we have to learn to cope with it."
4. Who are these guys?
So what kind of team do the Quakes have? If the preseason is any indication, it's a side that keeps things tight in the back and is opportunistic up front, but such games are about as accurate as Miss Cleo in predicting regular season success. Given the personnel at Yallop's disposal, San Jose should field a solid defensive outfit, but a front line that will likely be comprised of Kei Kamara and rookie Shea Salinas is unproven, meaning goals will likely be difficult to come by.
5. Whither the Little Fish?
Did Gullit just say it can't get worse? Well, given that striker Carlos Ruiz underwent arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, it's officially worse. Prior to the start of the season,the thinking was that the lack of depth on the Galaxy roster made it imperative that Beckham, Donovan, and Ruiz stayed healthy. Now those plans have been blown apart, leaving the Galaxy to look to Alan Gordon or Edson Buddle to get the job done up top.
Five players to watch
1. David Beckham, M, Los Angeles
With Ruiz out, the Galaxy will rely on their English international for inspiration, and given the vast expanses of the Home Depot Center, Beckham's pinpoint service will be in high demand. But Gullit insists that it can't just be a case of the team leaning on Beckham.
"I think Beckham also leans on the team, because if the team doesn't perform well he can't perform as well," said Gullit.
2. Ronnie O'Brien, M, San Jose
The Irishman struggled through an injury-riddled 2007 campaign in Toronto, with a troublesome right knee limiting him to 13 appearances. O'Brien contends that surgery to remove a bone spur last December has him feeling right again, but Toronto wasn't convinced and shipped him to San Jose in the preseason. Given the Quakes' scarce attacking resources, much of their offense will have to go through O'Brien.
"[O'Brien] is going to bring that element of surprise to our game," said Yallop. "He's not predictable. He shoots from distance, crosses it, slips guys in, and his service from set plays is very good."
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San Jose at Los Angeles
3. Landon Donovan, M/F, Los Angeles
It's easy to forget that Donovan led San Jose to its aforementioned championships, but his subsequent move to L.A. after a brief stint in Germany made him Judas Iscariot in the eyes of Quakes fans. While Donovan endured a forgettable opener in Colorado, his pace and passing can still inflict plenty of damage, especially if Gullit opts to play him up top.
4. Kei Kamara, F, San Jose
Yallop is betting a considerable amount of coaching capital that Kamara is the man to lead San Jose's front line. Never mind that Kamara scored just five goals in two seasons in Columbus, or that certain aspects of his game -- like his touch and holdup play -- remain raw. Yallop is convinced that Kamara's combination of power and pace will deliver the goals.
"I think [Kamara] is going to be tough for anybody, no matter who he plays against," said Yallop. "There are going to be games where he doesn't play well, but I think over the season he's going to be a handful."
5. Greg Vanney, D, Los Angeles
With central defensive partner Abel Xavier suspended for the match, it will be up to Vanney to help stabilize the Galaxy's defense. The Virginia native has bags of experience, having played 10 years in MLS, as well as four seasons with French side Bastia. Given the pace possessed by San Jose's likely front-line tandem of Kamara and Salinas, Vanney will need to rely on every ounce of guile he has, and keep his teammates organized at the same time.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.