Mention 2003 to supporters of the San Jose Earthquakes and they invariably recall The Greatest Game in MLS History — the Quakes stunning comeback from a 4-goal deficit to defeat the LA Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs. That epic win, so wonderfully chronicled by ESPNFC.com’s Jeffrey Carlisle, is often credited as the catalyst for San Jose’s MLS Cup championship run.
Or so the narrative goes.
Before the Earthquakes even had a chance to travel to the Home Depot center and play for the MLS Cup against the Chicago Fire in the title match, they had to get past the Kansas City Wizards in the one-game Western Conference Championship. And if beating the Galaxy is considered the greatest MLS game ever, the stunning result against the Wizards ranks not too far down the list.
Played less than a week later, the conference final pitted the top two teams in the West against each other at Spartan Stadium. The “We Believe” banners, iconic images from the match before, hung proudly from the imposing walls that surrounded the band-box of a pitch. A crowd of greater than 16,000 filed into the stands not sure what to expect, but still buzzing from the triumph over the Galaxy. They were about to witness an encore.
Led by the league’s MVP and Golden Boot winner Preki, the Wizards arrived in San Jose having not beaten the Quakes in four attempts during the regular season. Former Quake Jimmy Conrad and future Quake Nick Garica anchored the back line for Kansas City, while U.S. international goalkeeper and 1994 World Cup hero Tony Meola stood between the posts. The Wizards knew they had to diffuse the momentum and enthusiasm still brimming in the Quakes players, and they did just that in stifling the potent San Jose attack in a cagey first half performance.
The tense back and forth affair continued after intermission as neither side could break through. And then, just shy of the hour mark, Russian import Igor Simutenkov fired the visitors into the lead. Once again, the Earthquakes faced a deficit in the playoffs and had to find a way to get back into the game. Not lacking in confidence, the Quakes quickly answered the call.
Playing in an advanced position, defensive rock Troy Dayak got things started on the equalizer with a pass to the wing that reached Landon Donovan. The Earthquakes starlet eschewed an attempt on goal and directed a slide rule pass across the area that was directed into the back of the net by Manny Lagos. The celebration on the field and off served to break the silence that had descended on Spartan Stadium. Momentum had shifted back in favor of the home side.
And then the Earthquakes went down a goal again, this time via Chris Klein. The Wizards midfield mainstay, who now plies his trade as president of the LA Galaxy, momentarily sucked the air out of the game. The emotional toll of the week before almost seemed to be too much to overcome. But these never-say-die Earthquakes — before there was even a never-say-die label attached to them — refused to quit, and, with the crowd urging them forward, completed a masterful comeback.
With less than 10 minutes left in their season, the Quakes stormed into the attack and created the tying goal. Ian Russell, who continued his role that season as a super-substitute, collected a ball along the tight confines of the left sideline and broke the ankles of his defender to create a passing channel into the penalty area. The current Earthquakes assistant coach was a pivotal member of those earlier teams, and his purposeful cross exemplified everything about Russell’s desire for success.
Meanwhile, bursting in from the opposite side of the area, fan-favorite Brian Mullan stepped in between the two central Kansas City defenders and stabbed home the equalizer. The iron-man midfielder’s career had blossomed since arriving from LA in a trade ahead of the season — he started every game that season for San Jose — and the most important goal he would score as a Quake sent the crowd into rapture. Destiny was certainly on the side of the Earthquakes.
The proceedings remained undecided after 90 minutes, and the match entered extra time. For the second time in less than a week, all that stood between the Earthquakes and postseason progression was a Golden Goal. The Wizards fought valiantly for the first 15 minute session, and much of the second to stave off the Quakes in that effort. The specter of penalty kicks to decide the winner haunted the otherwise riveting affair. That is, until Donovan settled the match once and for all.
The Golden Goal, a feature of knockout games in MLS that sadly is no more, provided the ultimate reward for a team willing to go all-out to win in extra time. The gravity of such a potential game-winning goal only added to the tension felt on both sides. The Earthquakes, only six days removed from Rodrigo Faria’s Galaxy killer, had to wait almost the entire 30 minutes of extra time to see another one, but when they did, the manic exultation was every bit as impressive.
Less than 3 minutes showed on the scoreboard clock when the Quakes struck, and that the goal came through team MVP Donovan seemed only fitting. With 12 goals on the season — twice more than anyone else on the team — Donovan produced in the most dramatic of ways: a moment of technical excellence in the box and a memorable Golden Goal.
A long clearance ball from goalkeeper Pat Onstad was poorly cleared by the Wizards defense, and midfield maestro Ronnie Ekelund kept the play alive. Ekelund headed the ball out to Donovan as part of a give-and-go before springing the 21-year old forward in on goal. The Danish Gangster put the hit out on the Wizards, and Donovan delivered the fatal blow. San Jose’s claim as the Best in the West and its quest to reach MLS Cup had been fulfilled.
The Quakes famously completed the club’s second season as MLS Champions with a convincing 4-2 victory over the Fire in the MLS Cup final. Ekelund got that match started with a superb free kick goal and Donovan chipped in a brace as part of an MVP performance. And it all came to be via an amazing November week at Spartan Stadium, in two of the most amazing games in Earthquakes history.