Ten years ago today, the San Jose Earthquakes were gathered in Los Angeles on the eve of the 2003 MLS Cup. One week removed from a gripping victory over the Kansas City Wizards in the Western Conference Final and a fortnight gone from the miraculous comeback against the LA Galaxy, San Jose readied itself for a championship match against the favored Chicago Fire.
And less than 24 hours later, the Earthquakes danced on the Home Depot pitch in possession of trophy that seemed virtually unattainable two weeks before, celebrating their third straight electrifying win. “We believe” was the team mantra in 2003, and these original never-day-die Quakes made it stand up on that perfect November 23 afternoon in Southern California by defeating the Fire 4-2.
The immensity of the emotions from the previous two victories would be enough to drain the energy of any other sportsmen — but not the Earthquakes. Destiny is a word that is too easily thrown around when talking about great teams winning championships, but the 2003 Quakes were more than worthy of the label. As so perfectly stated by Dayak after reflecting on the season, that year’s team showed its true character in the playoffs.
Character was certainly an intangible for San Jose, but a talented roster was also huge reason for its playoff run, and every man stepped up when it counted against Chicago. The Supporters’ Shield winning Fire were tough as nails on defense — they had yet to allow a goal in the playoffs — and a force on offense. Led by MLS MVP finalist Ante Razov, Chicago had outscored its two postseason opponents 5-0 in reaching MLS Cup. Stationed between the posts was indomitable goalkeeper Zach Thornton and two-time MLS Defender of the Year Carlos Bocanegra.
Meanwhile, the Earthquakes countered with MLS Best XI selections Landon Donovan on offense and goalkeeper Pat Onstad between the posts. Seven of the players used that afternoon against the Fire had seen action in the Quakes 2001 MLS Cup triumph against the Galaxy. A seasoned bunch to work with - a collection of players hungry to win a second championship for San Jose.
The 2003 MLS Cup featured two teams that had scored Golden Goals in the conference finals to make the championship — Donovan’s 117th minute winner to defeat the Wizards and Chris Armas’ 101st minute strike that knocked off the defending Eastern Conference champions New England Revolution. Both sides were chomping at the bit to continue their momentum in the final.
The Earthquakes, who had not held a lead at any point in the playoffs heading into the match and required successive extra time winners to advance to the Cup final, scored the first goal of the match in only the 5th minute through a breathtaking free kick from Ronnie Ekelund. Situated just outside the area and with a wall of red in front of him, Ekelund blasted a shot that seemingly went right though Thornton and into the back of the net. He flashed his trademark “Danish Gangster” celebration for the Home Depot crowd as Quakes teammates converged on him. The stunned Fire had just allowed their first goal in the 2003 playoffs.
The match was played end-to-end following Ekelund’s goal, and time and time again Onstad and the Earthquakes defense held up to the runs of Razov and forward Damani Ralph. Chicago had seized momentum and looked certain to find an equalizer. Unfortunately for the Fire, Donovan was not ready to comply.
The Earthquakes MVP and previous week’s Golden Goal scoring hero once again flashed his bona fides with a perfect shot in waning moments of the first half. Sprung behind the Chicago defense by a perfectly weighted pass from Jamil Walker, Donovan coolly slotted the ball past Thornton to double San Jose’s advantage and send the game into intermission assuredly in the Earthquakes favor. For 45 minutes, the Fire had been extinguished.
However, the Shield holders came out of the locker room reignited, and within minutes had clawed a goal back through an amazing individual effort by midfielder DaMarcus Beasley. Donovan’s partner in crime on the U.S. Men’s National Team halved the Quakes lead with a shot from a near impossible angle that eluded Onstad. Chicago was right back in the game and celebrated the breakthrough.
Perhaps they celebrated too much, as a minute later the Earthquakes restored their two goal lead when a perfect pass over the top by Brian Mullan fell to Richard Mulrooney for the most straightforward of shots — a low shot to the far post that Thornton could do little to prevent. 3-1 to San Jose and the Fire supporters were once again silenced.
Chicago would not give up, and a fortuitous own goal by San Jose defender Chris Roner threw the Fire a lifeline with the match almost an hour old. Before another minute had passed, Ralph was awarded a penalty after a scissor tackle by Roner just inside the edge of the area. Razov stepped up to the spot with a chance to pull Chicago level.
Razov was a clinical penalty kick taker and in the 2003 season had already notched five goals from the spot. The marksman calmly stood over the ball and deliberated whether to go to the right or the left of goalkeeper Onstad. Razov went left, and Onstad guessed correctly, smothering the ball just inside the post and preserving the Earthquakes lead at 3-2. Look up the definition of “turning point” in the dictionary and Onstad’s penalty kick save heads the list.
The Fire had had the better of the scoring opportunities on the day, but Onstad denied Chicago the one chance that could have changed the course of the game. The reprieve gave the Earthquakes confidence on both sides of the ball, and in the 71st minute a perfectly executed counterattack goal by Donovan sealed the win for San Jose.
The Fire fought valiantly over the last stretch of the match, but they never recovered from Onstad’s penalty save. And even when Chicago was able to muster up something on offense, an imperturbable Quakes side weathered the storm and watched as the scoreboard clock ticked closer and closer to 90 minutes. The MLS Cup, escorted to its station at the center line, sat ready to be hoisted by the soon-to-be champion Earthquakes.
And with the final whistle came an enormous outpouring of exultation from on the field to in the stands. San Jose had accomplished what is still considered the greatest three-game run in MLS playoffs history — the huge comeback against LA in the conference semifinals, the Golden Goal victory over Kansas City to reach the final, and the thrilling 4-2 victory over the favored Fire to win MLS Cup. The Earthquakes made believers of us all in an unforgettable and very memorable 2003 season.