Rivalry Juxtaposition: An Enlightening Weekend at The San Diego Derby & Cali Clasico

Rivalry Juxtaposition: An Enlightening Weekend at The San Diego Derby & Cali Clasico

It’s one of my favorite words in the English language. Juxtaposition, two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect.

On Saturday afternoon, I made my final preparations for a broadcast that had me buzzing with excitement. It was the second ever head-to-head match-up between the North County Battalion and Albion Pros, San Diego’s newest professional soccer teams, who are battling for the hearts and minds of the city both on and off the field.

Some purists, (including the two head coaches, Ryan Guy for the Battalion and Ziggy Korytoski for Albion) were skeptical in calling the first affair back in April a “derby” or a “rivalry game”, as the two teams had never even kicked a ball or set foot on the same pitch. Four goals, two red cards, 1,200 fans, and one Albion win in Battalion territory later, and it was safe to call the May 21st rematch at Albion’s home stadium in Mission Bay whatever you damn well pleased. I liked the sound of the San Diego Derby, just off the shores of the mighty Pacific, as the winds swirl and the mission bells toll for soccer on the Mexican-American border. You get the picture.

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Less than 24 hours later, just over a hundred miles to the north, the Los Angeles Galaxy would be hosting the San Jose Earthquakes in what is, for my money, the finest rivalry in Major League Soccer, steeped in two decades of history, folklore, championships, and unfiltered animosity. There would be over 27,000 fans, droves of media, and a national television crew in attendance, as the likes of Steven Gerrard, Giovanni Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, and Chris Wondolowski took to the Sunday greens.

It is dubbed the “Cali Clasico”, pitting North against South, and it’s a fixture near and dear to my heart. I’ve seen it played in five different grounds (Spartan Stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, the StubHub Center, Buck Shaw Stadium, and Avaya Stadium). I’ve taken them in as a child, adolescent, fan, drunk, lover, hater, home fan, away fan, radio presenter, and in this case a writer and freelance Snapchatter. There are few fixtures that get my blood boiling more than this one, and I couldn’t believe the timing. It was like the Soccer Gods chipped me over my very own personalized rivalry weekend, and the two matches shared so much in common while also being unmistakably different.

I am incredibly grateful to have moved to San Diego three months ago. I knew nobody and had nothing guaranteed when I arrived. As a Californian, I’m a Northerner through and through, an outsider in the southern reaches of the Golden State. Thanks to the help and hospitality of some incredible people and organizations, I have truly made a home in the city, and have found myself engulfed in its local soccer community.

The Battalion-Albion match-up is such a beautiful thing, and promises to be a San Diego staple for years to come. Ryan Guy shared with me perhaps the finest quote of the week, illustrating what it represents.
“Cultural and ideological differences being hashed out by 22 men on a Saturday. That’s a rivalry. That’s a derby. And nobody benefits more than the people of this city that we love.”

Ziggy Korytsoki’s elegance in simplicity was mighty nice as well.

“These two teams are the highest level of outdoor soccer in this city, and people have an opportunity every week to see them play, or in this case a phenomenal opportunity to see them both play as they go head to head.”

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It’s a privilege to play even a small part in San Diego’s newest rivalry from behind cameras, microphones, and keyboards. However, as 5 o’clock approached on Saturday, nobody seemed interested in the long-term futures of the organizations. There was a manic immediacy to the desires of both clubs, their players, and of course their fans. It was all about winning on the day.

The Battalion wanted revenge, retribution after being beaten at home a month prior, while Albion wanted to double down on their local winnings, and smack a statement of dominance across not only the city, but also the entire league. Ziggy Korytoski labeled his Albion side as “the cream of San Diego” this past week, and there is no doubt their owners and the folks who run their academy teams would second that statement, and it could be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

There seems to be a self-perception of prestige with the Albion name, much to the chagrin of not only the Battalion, but also dozens of youth clubs around San Diego County. The Albion heads have resources, and they’re not afraid to let you know. They wear their status with pride.

The Galaxy, with a roster littered with international superstars and a stadium filled with a relatively affluent population enamored with glitz and glamour, look at themselves in a similar light. The Quakes, whose $6 million payroll is tripled by their So Cal rivals, are often looked at (and treated) as the bastard child of California MLS.

The original San Jose MLS franchise (the San Jose Clash from 1996-99 before honoring San Jose soccer history and changing their name to the Earthquakes) was seized by the league at the conclusion of the 2005 season and moved to Houston where they would wear bright orange and be called the Dynamo. It was a heartbreaking shock to a dedicated fan base that saw their team win MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003, and post the league’s best record in 2005 before being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by, guess who, the Galaxy. As Northern Californians were left in the dark by the league, the Houston Dynamo won the next two MLS Cups, with a team core that was created and groomed in San Jose.

MLS granted San Jose a new franchise in 2008, and the team has made the playoffs just twice. Their Club President, Dave Kaval, is a Northern California businessman who prior to taking office with the Quakes in 2010, worked in independent minor league baseball. He was influential in finally getting a soccer specific stadium built in San Jose. His next step is helping to build a winner on the field, with a budget that pales in comparison to his team’s fiercest rivals. Just like the Battalion on Saturday, the Quakes would walk in to their opponent’s home as the underdog, hoping to out hustle and out muscle the flashy Galaxy.

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Before each match this past weekend, I thought back to that Ryan Guy quote. Apart from the necessities of the broadcast, I didn’t care much that Albion were top of the NPSL Southwestern table or that the Battalion were in third. The mid-table placement in the Western Conference of MLS for the Galaxy and the Quakes meant little as well. Each match was about the day itself, and as soon as the opening whistles blew in Mission Bay and Carson, those statistical standings would go the way of the empty bottle (straight into the recycling bin, I should clarify, not getting thrown at someone in a parking lot, or perhaps even worse, into a garbage can).

On Saturday in San Diego, an intimate crowd of 800 people took in an electric encounter between two sides that clearly knew what was at stake. It was action packed, stiff challenges blending with tantalizing technical play to create a fizzing tonic that tried desperately to spill out of the glass. The glass just kept getting taller.

After a scoreless first half, Battalion midfield maestro Nelson Pizarro was sent off for a second yellow, just ten seconds into the second half! The Battalion had their backs against the wall, as an Albion goal or three seemed inevitable, the home side flourishing in attack, moving forward with a fluid and cohesive ferocity. Somehow, someway, by an act of someone, that goal never came. Whether that someone was a spiritual deity or a combination of Battalion goalkeeper James Stroud and his helpful backline, we’ll never know.

Albion captain Luke Staats was shown a second yellow late in the second half, setting up what looked to be a barnstorm finish. Unfortunately for fans of net rippling, there was no finishing to be had apart from the final whistle. Stroud made 12 saves, including three in the span of five seconds, late on, and was aided by his gritty defenders throughout the match (Joe Shah, Duach Jock, and Rory Sutherland all playing the full game), as well as his trusty crossbar in the midst of the aforementioned triple save madness.

The match ended nil-nil, but it was by no means a nihilistic affair. Once the game was over, we realized again that the day was about something more meaningful than a result. It was about cultural growth and soccer in San Diego, but for ninety minutes, James Stroud made it all about himself in the best of ways.

The “Goalkeepers’ Union” is one of the most uniquely beautiful things in soccer, and there were few sights more endearing on Saturday than Stroud getting hugged by his friend and former San Diego Flash teammate Jean Antoine, the Haitian net-minder who this season has become an Albion fan favorite. Ziggy Korytoski calls Antoine “the best keeper in the league”. As Stroud embraced Antoine at midfield, the early evening shadows fell over Buccaneer Stadium at Mission Bay. The two laughed, and you couldn’t help but wonder if that best goalie debate was being had right then and there. The debate of who’s winning the hearts and minds of San Diego may roar on with an infinite flame.

As I arrived at the Stub Hub Center on Sunday afternoon, that word juxtaposition was in bold print on my brain. A small local derby at a high school football stadium followed up by a match at the first ever soccer specific stadia in America and watched by people all around California and the world. It wasn’t just the contrast though that was glaring. The similarities and quirky bonds were special too.

Mark Rogondino, a San Diego native and proud SDSU graduate, would be calling the game for FOX. Though not in the 18, Ariel Lassiter, an Albion youth academy product, was seated on the Galaxy bench. There was also a Battalion crest present on a notebook in the press box, sitting next to a delicious plate of roasted vegetables and pollo asado tacos.

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The place was rocking. The first half saw Robbie Keane miss from close range and Chris Wondolowski hit the bar at the other end. The second half saw Giovanni Dos Santos literally shake the goal, as his thunderous volley from over twenty yards went straight off the bar. I joked with a colleague about the prospects of this gloriously personalized rivalry weekend ending with no goals in two matches. Then came the breakthrough, from unlikely and quite unfortunate source.

In the 83rd minute, Galaxy substitute Sebastian Lletget was rewarded for his fantastic overlapping run and dangerous cross into the area. Earthquakes defender Marvell Wynne lunged back toward his own goal, making contact with only the bottom of his studs, and accidentally guiding the ball into his own net, past a helpless David Bingham, the Quakes keeper who had put up a Stroud-like performance in the second half. It was a crushing blow, and the StubHub Center absolutely erupted. It was to be silenced just four minutes later.

Energy off the bench paid dividends yet again as Chad Barrett ran down a loose ball in the Galaxy third. He eventually found the space to send a cross toward goal, whipping it perfectly onto the head of the darting Fatai Alashe who knocked it past Galaxy keeper Brian Rowe. The home party was spoiled, as the traveling San Jose Ultras went bonkers in the corner with not a shirt in sight.

The underdogs took a point on the road, and the home team felt like they had left a win on the table. This seemed to be the song and dance of the weekend.

In case you didn’t pick up on it already, I was pulling pretty hard for the road teams in these rivalry games. I must take this opportunity to thank the folks at Albion, most notably Ian Cook, and the entire Galaxy Media Staff (as well as Corner of the Galaxy head honcho Josh Guesman) for showing me the utmost hospitality and professionalism throughout the weekend, as I was not so secretly rooting against their teams. Look, there’s nothing wrong with neutrality, but there’s no need to lie to anyone.

I had a great chat with Earthquakes forward Simon Dawkins after the Sunday match, a man who is “incredibly excited and honored” to represent Jamaica at this summer’s Copa America Centenario. U.S. Men’s National Team and Galaxy legend Cobi Jones (who was calling the game with Mark Rogondino on FOX) made a surprise appearance in the tunnel, posed for some pictures, and commended Dawkins on his performance in the match. Simply put, it was a cool moment, just like the Stroud-Antoine goalie hug the day before.

I spent so much time this weekend examining the differences between these two matches. I ended up appreciating the similarities.

Spanish author, television presenter, and well-respected football aficionado Guillem Balague said something to me during a radio interview last year that will stick with me forever. We were discussing Guillem’s role with Biggleswade United, a fresh, non-league English side that epitomizes the phrase “from the ground up” on an organizational level. I asked Guillem about his enthusiasm for “grassroots football”.

“Nate, my Basque friend, you might find this funny, but I absolutely hate the word ‘grassroots’. It creates a separation, as if this grassroots football is somehow different from La Liga or the Premier League. It is the same game. We should not label it as anything different. We must always remember that football is football.”

Whether it’s non-league in England or a Wembley Final, football is football. Whether it’s an NPSL match with 800 people in attendance, or an MLS match with 27,000, soccer is soccer. Giovanni Dos Santos, Esteban Reyes, Steven Gerrard, and Matt Clare were all playing the same game this weekend. The more that we remember that, the more we will grow at all levels.

We know that the Galaxy will do battle with the Quakes again on June 25th in San Jose. We don’t know when Albion and the Battalion will square off again. It very well could be in the NPSL postseason. It might not be until the next campaign. Whenever it is, San Diego’s soccer community will be buzzing with anticipation, for there are few things more special than a derby match. They belong to the people.

Whether you’re lucky enough to be in the ground on that day, singing in the stands, sliding on the pitch, or whether you’re watching on a YouTube live-stream, give thanks. Before kickoff, close your eyes and think of some of your favorite derbies and clasicos from around the world, ones that you’ve taken in first hand, or via international television. Then look back at the red stripes of Albion and the dark axes of the Battalion, and remember that a rivalry is a rivalry. This one is yours, San Diego.

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