In any language, Quakes-Galaxy playoff epic gives MLS its defining match
Posted: Monday November 10, 2003 8:35PM; Updated: Tuesday November 11, 2003 10:17AM
San Jose coach Frank Yallop hardly could contain his excitement over the Quakes' improbable series victory.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Let's call it what it was: the greatest game in MLS history.
I won't argue about this. And neither will U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, who had the fortune of being on site for Sunday night's unforgettable first-round playoff victory by the San Jose Earthquakes over the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy.
Calling it the Clásico de California won't do it justice. Understand: To continue their season, the Quakes had to score five unanswered goals after going down 4-0 (aggregate) in the 13th minute on Sunday.
Not only that, but they had to do it against the defending MLS champion, a team that hadn't given up more than two goals in a game all season.
And they did it. Five freaking goals -- capped by Chris Roñer's 90th-minute equalizer and the golden goal in overtime by Rodrigo Faria, who broke down crying under a dogpile of teammates on the Spartan Stadium sod.
All the "postseason epic" comparisons are apt. This was the Bills coming from 32 points down to beat the Oilers (with ace passer Richard Mulrooney playing Frank Reich). This was MLS' version of the Chargers over the Dolphins (with the exhausted Brian Mullan playing Kellen Winslow). This was better than Stallone's penalty-kick save in Victory.
This was the kind of game that builds a league.
Best match in MLS history? No doubt. "It was the best game I've ever seen in terms of the excitement and what had to be accomplished," Arena told me on Monday. "It's one thing if they had won the game 3-2 and under the old format sent it into another 30 minutes [of sudden-death OT]. But to win it on aggregate ... I can't say it was impossible, because it's not impossible. They did it."
Remember, Arena sees more MLS games than just about anyone ("definitely 80 percent of the games, maybe more," he says), and recall, too, that he was personally involved as D.C. United's coach in the game that is now No. 2 in MLS history: United's 3-2 win over L.A. (those Galaxy again) in MLS Cup I after coming back from a 2-0 deficit.
Not even that one compares to Sunday night. "We didn't have to score five goals in the '96 final," Arena says. "We were down two goals and got the two to go into overtime. They had to get four to go into overtime. And the goals -- all seven of them -- were great goals."
Arena is not a man who normally gushes. He was gushing over the phone on Monday: "It was truly remarkable. The crowd [of 14,145] was into it. And the soccer by San Jose was pretty good, you know. They had to break down an L.A. team that was putting a lot of players behind the ball and had a great goalkeeper [Kevin Hartman] who made two fantastic saves."
Choosing the Quakes' hero was an impossible task. Was it Mulrooney, whose Hail Mary cross to Roñer in Minute 90 saved the day when it looked like the game was over? Was it Landon Donovan, whose perfect through-ball set up Faria for his winning first-time laser? Was it coach Frank Yallop, the anti-Grady Little, who sent on Roñer just two minutes before he headed home the equalizer? Or was it Faria, the late sub who nearly gave up the sport after his father died back home in Brazil last summer?
Or maybe it was Jamil Walker (one goal and one assist in his first pro start). Or the tireless Mullan. Or wily old vet Jeff Agoos, whose 20-yard free kick bomb started the rally in the first place.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
Thank god for the MLS Shootout TV package. This game alone was worth the $50 price tag -- and not just for supporters of either team, but for anyone who considers himself an American soccer fan.
Here's an idea: Given the handful of people who actually saw the broadcast, wouldn't you think the good folks at Fox Sports World could run it again as an Instant Classic? That would be the best way to recreate the upside-down-exclamation-mark passion that surrounded this game. (Which reminds me, how much fun is it to watch Spanish-language soccer broadcasts? Think about it. ¡¡¡Cuatro a cuatro, increîble!!!¡¡¡Es un clásico!!! just sounds better than Four-four. Incredible, a classic. Ah, the limitations of the English language.)
And so MLS' much-maligned new playoff format is vindicated. Sort of. Another way to look at it would be to wonder how much better MLS would be if it had games like this one -- games that really meant something -- more often.
As Arena says, "For my job it's one of the few games where I'm really able to evaluate players in high-pressure conditions. And players show in those types of settings. There's not enough games like that in the league.
"You'll see games like that in Europe. They're fast-paced, they're intense, and players are playing like it means something. If MLS went to a [single] table next year and had the top three or four teams get bonuses at the end of the year, every game would mean something. It would raise the level considerably. Right now, being one of eight teams to make the playoffs isn't an accomplishment. And then you get into these short little series that make a farce out of the 30 previous games."
All that said, Arena couldn't help but be impressed by what happened Sunday night. And the fact is, he has been able to identify some new national team prospects: "I would say [New England's] Pat Noonan, from what I've seen the last month or two. Brian Mullan is an interesting player. And the kid Jamil Walker had a fantastic game last night. He's a walking advertisement for the league. We're often critical of the league, but you look at this kid who came in at the beginning of the year and was really raw, inexperienced and not ready to play, and he got a goal last night and was dangerous. It's pretty noticeable that he's made considerable improvements throughout the year."
It was Walker, the rookie from Santa Clara, who fed Donovan on Quakes goal No. 2 -- and then scored on his own header (from who else, Mulrooney) for No. 3. That set the stage for a miracle comeback that nobody, deep down, could have imagined possible.
As Arena put it, "Before the game, I told Frank [Yallop], 'You can't let them get the first goal, and if they get the second goal [to go up 4-0 overall] then head to the bar.'
"I'm happy he didn't listen to my advice."
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl keeps you up to date with the world of U.S. soccer at SI.com.