California Clasico May Be Most Important Rivalry In MLS

CARSON, CA - MAY 23: Brian Gaul #35 of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Steven Lenhart #24 of the San Jose Earthquakes vie for the ball in the first half of the MLS match at The Home Depot Center on May 23, 2012 in Carson, California. The Earthquakes defeated the Galaxy 3-2. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

No, it's still not currently the biggest or probably even the best, but the Earthquakes-Galaxy rivalry has huge longterm potential.

It has been said countless times, but it's worth repeating: Soccer thrives on rivalries. MLS has always had them, and they've certainly helped raise the league's profile in recent years, but there seems to have been something lacking in that department as well.

The Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers rivalry is undeniably a great start. The passion is there. The history is there. The encounters have all been exciting. But let's face it: It's Portland the Seattle. Even as someone who lives and breathes soccer in that part of the country, I understand that it has limited national appeal. It might be the most passionate soccer rivalry in the United States, but it's still seen as a bit of a oddity by those outside of the Pacific Northwest.

That's why Saturday's game between the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy is so important.

Like Cascadia, this rivalry has plenty of history. No, it doesn't stretch back to the NASL, but it is arguably the best one that has survived from the earliest days of MLS. This will be the 50th regular-season match between the California rivals, with the Galaxy holding a 25-16-8 advantage. They've also combined to win five MLS Cups, often times having to go through one another to win it.

While it has been a one-sided affair at times, the Earthquakes have started to turn it around. They got the best of the Galaxy in 2010 -- when LA won the Supporters' Shield -- and erased a 2-0 deficit to win the first matchup this season 3-2.

This game is shaping up to be the kind of affair that takes the rivalry to the next level, though. The Earthquakes are currently leading the Supporters' Shield race and playing as exciting a brand of soccer as we've seen. They make comeback victories look almost routine, love to attack and have a host of interesting personalities.

They'll be facing a Galaxy team that is suddenly among the hottest teams in MLS, having won three straight to climb back into the playoff chase. The Designated Player trio of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane is finally starting to live up to the expectations.

In short, this will be a game between two teams that are at or near their top form.

Even better? It will be played in front of a sellout crowd of about 50,000 and before a national TV audience. Stanford Stadium may not be built specifically for soccer, but the dimensions lend itself perfectly for this kind of game. The stands are almost right on top of the field and both teams should have vocal supporters screaming encouragement from easily heard vantage points.

Sure, it's unlikely that the atmosphere will eclipse what we saw for last Sunday's Cascadia Cup match. Heck, the ratings probably won't be as good as that game, either (880,000 people watched, reportedly). When the Sounders host the Timbers on Oct. 7, that game will draw a bigger crowd.

What it can't match is the sheer market size that the California Clasico can reach. The Bay Area and Los Angeles markets are the second and sixth biggest in the country, reaching nearly 20 million people. It's that kind of mainstream exposure that MLS is currently lacking.

Obviously, one game is not going to suddenly make the Earthquakes and Galaxy the star attractions in two of the most competitive markets in the country. But for one day, at least, this will be an undeniable attraction. As the Earthquakes continue their push for a soccer-specific stadium and the Galaxy gain greater and great worldwide name recognition, this really could become the most important rivalry in MLS.

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