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SJ Earthquakes season review
It was my first training session outside the San Jose Earthquakes’ new Avaya Stadium. The team practice on a pitch adjacent to the stadium and when I walked in, they were practicing finishing. I noticed that the balls kept flying over the nets behind the goal and commented that the team needs to get a bigger fence. Another beat reporter whispered in my ear: “Or better players.”
There are many nuances that Americanize Major League Soccer — ranging from minute to the size of 6’5″ center-backs — and over the course of the season San Jose Earthquakes have felt every one; from the glories of a new stadium, the announcement of the 2016 MLS All Star game in San Jose, and visits from stars such as Kaka, Steven Gerrard, and Clint Dempsey, to the growing pains that include a lack of depth, key players lost to international duty (with no MLS breaks) and finally a disappointing near-miss for a playoff spot.
Now it’s time to reflect on the season, down the pitch, into the dressing room, and the heart of the Earthquakes’ 2015 MLS campaign. We’ve compiled our experiences at Football Every Day from a season covering the Quakes live on gamedays.
NEW BEGINNINGS; April-June
Rewind to the final day of the 2014 MLS regular season in Carson, California, where the San Jose Earthquakes faced Chivas USA. The Quakes’ playoffs hopes had been long lost within their seemingly endless winless streak but interim coach Ian Russell, who took the reigns after Mark Watson’s sacking, simply wanted to salvage some of the club’s dignity. They were without a goal in three games and only the heroics of goalkeeper John Busch, who made the most saves in a single MLS season since 2007, spared them even more embarrassment.
Yet even his saves on the night could not keep the Quakes from losing 1-0 to Chivas, their fourteenth consecutive winless match. “At this moment, I’d trade every one of those saves for a win,” Busch said after the match, per the San Jose Mercury News. “I’d trade every one of those saves to be in the playoffs and keep playing. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”
“This is a terrible season. It hurt. It hurt a lot that we couldn’t find a way to get out of this and right the ship.”
“I’ve been around a long time and, usually, every team goes through tough times during the season. But you always find ways to get out of it. Unfortunately, this year, we just could not find a way. That drove me crazy.”
The Quakes might not have appreciated it then, but that very loss opened up a glimmer of hope for them this season. It put them last in the Western Conference and gave them the fourth pick in the MLS Superdraft. The first went to expansion Orlando City, who drafted Cyle Larin, the sixth top scorer in the regular season with twenty-four goals. Two more highly touted forwards, Khiry Shelton and Romario Williams went to New York City FC and the Montreal Impact, respectively.
With their pick, the Quakes took Fatai Alashe, a midfielder from Michigan State University. He had impressed at the MLS Combine and was one of only eight players to sign an early contract with MLS.
“I could see Fatai playing in the middle of a 4-4-2,” Kinnear said with amazing foresight. “He could play in a 4-3-3 as well. He’s not an attacking midfielder, but he can play somewhere in between and be more of a box-to-box guy.”
After the draft, Kinnear also shared one particular jewel from their interview with Alashe. They had asked him where he saw himself three to five years and Alashe responded: “An MLS All-Star.”
It actually took Alashe just five minutes into his home debut to write his name into the Quakes’s history book, nodding home an early corner against the Chicago Fire to score the first goal at Avaya Stadium. The twenty-two-year-old didn’t travel to the Quakes’ first game of the season, a 1-0 loss to Dallas, but he impressed enough in his debut a week later, a 3-2 win over the Seattle Sounders at Century Link Field to ensure his starting position on the big day.
Apart from Alashe, however, the Quakes had a rather unfulfilling offseason. The team clearly needed a makeover and the man they brought in to facilitate it was MLS veteran Dominic Kinnear. The Scotland-born manager moved to the Bay Area at the age of three and after a nomadic professional career that included a stint at the San Jose Clash, he began his managerial career back in San Jose as an assistant coach in 2001. In 2004, he was promoted to head coach after the team won the MLS Cup and managed to win the Supporters’ Shield before relocating to Houston with the team, where he remained before the Quakes picked him up again.
Kinnear first cut a bunch of deadweight to clear the team’s slate, including Busch and veteran midfielder Sam Cronin. Yet their replacements, few in number, were not obvious upgrades on reputation alone. Kinnear brought in young midfielder Leandro Barrera from Argentina and also picked up two MLS veterans, full-back Marvell Wynne and winger Sanna Nyassi. It wasn’t until the announcement of the Quakes’ third designated player, Innocent Emeghara, a nimble, pacy forward from Switzerland, that the team put big money on the table. Kinnear was placing a lot of trust in the Quakes’ second designated player, Matias Perez Garcia, who returned from a season-ending injury in time for preseason.
Kinnear took this jumble of players and began to experiment in preseason. In his first match in charge of the Quakes, Kinnear faced none other than his old Houston Dynamo. But Kinnear was loath to hype up his old club. “Give a [darn]?” said Quakes goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley, finishing a reporter’s question. “He doesn’t. ”
“He’s got ego, like everybody,” said Hanley, who was part of Kinnear’s backroom staff for the entirety of his eight years in Houston. “But I think if you look at him, the circumstances and the big games he’s been in, it’ll just be a tick. There’s not going to be a bunch of quotes. You’re never going to get him going, saying something.”
The Quakes lost 3-2 but there were plenty of takeaways for Kinnear to dissect. Some aging squad members were immediately benched, notably Khari Stephenson and the injured Steven Lenhart. He used Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi and JJ Koval in a double-pivot defensive midfielder pairing in a 4-2-3-1 but both failed to impress. Adam Jahn scored both of the Quakes’ goals and David Bingham filled in as Busch’s natural successor. Four days later, Garcia started and assisted the Quakes’ only goal in a 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps, which also marked Emeghara’s first appearance for the Quakes.
Veteran center-back Clarence Goodson was sidelined with injury and Kinnear rotated between using Victor Bernardez, Ty Harden and Paulo Renato as centerbacks in preseason. Wynne found a home opposite of Shaun Francis (who was rotated with Jordan Stewart) as a right-full-back after beating Brandon Barklage to the starting position. This backline kept a clean sheet against the Portland Timbers and beat the Colorado Rapids, and in the Quakes’ 1-0 win over the Sacramento Republic, Goodson returned to play alongside Bernardez at the back.
The Quakes’ first real test in preseason came in the “soft opener” of Avaya Stadium against the LA Galaxy. Off the pitch, it was a test run of the stadium’s functionality with 10,000 spectators. Perennial chants emanated from the ultras section, starting a half-hour before kickoff and ending only after they were politely kicked out of the stadium long after the whistle blew, the choruhaving transformed from “beat LA” to “we’ve beat LA.”
On the pitch, though, the Quakes were tough as nails in a 3-2 victory over their rivals. Kinnear opted for the 4-2-3-1 he used throughout preseason and the first goal at Avaya came in the form of an own goal as Omar Gonzalez deflected Shea Salinas’ cross into the back of his own net. Salinas also assisted a goal from Jahn in the second half after Koval had put the Quakes in the lead. All in all, the test run went by without a hitch for the Quakes.
Kinnear used the same lineup in their season opener with Dallas. Playing against a bright, young side the Quakes were made to sit deep and defend, but a scrappy late winner in extra-time from Blas Perez highlighted Bingham’s inexperience, having been stranded in no-mans land after a half-cleared punch.
The following week against Seattle, the Quakes’ defensive frailties were again exposed as the Sounders took the league twenty-four seconds in, Clint Dempsey nodding home the rebound from Bingham’s early save. Yet for the first time under Kinnear, the Quakes’ attacking force came together. Wondolowski turned the game around with two poacher’s goals and despite Bernardez’s second half red card, Emeghara combined with Garcia and finished a jinxing run with a cool finish to announce himself to the Quakes fanbase. The win made the last leg of the Quakes’ long march home just that little bit easier to make.
Major League Soccer is still considered a young league, despite a twenty-year history that has included a lifetime’s worth of ups and downs for San Francisco Bay Area fans. Two major rebrands, two periods of wild success, and two years entirely without a club have punctuated the roller-coaster ride of one Phillip Luna’s Quakes’ fandom.
Among Avaya Stadium’s many perks, including the longest outdoor bar in North America, is a standing section for supporters’ groups at the West End of the stadium. It is here where Phillip watched Avaya’s regular season opener against the Chicago Fire on a cloudy afternoon in late March. Above him sat the ultras.“The atmosphere is amazing…the ultras [do] a great job,” Phillip told Football Every Day in an interview. The sound is amazing, the top really locks that sound in and gives us home field advantage.”
Avaya also has the steepest stands of any stadium in MLS, leaving no truly bad seat in the house. Tucked high into a corner of the stadium sat an assortment of former Quakes players, who enjoyed magnificent views of the pitch. Among them was Johnny Moore, former general manager of the Quakes. Moore managed the club between 2002 and 2003, only to quit in protest of a proposed purchase of the club by the Mexican side Club America. Although the deal eventually fell out, the Quakes still relocated to Houston in 2005 and San Jose went without an MLS side until 2008, when new owners brought back the old franchise. Soon, plans for Avaya in place, bringing the reassurance of permanence to the club.
“They can’t move now. Owners come and go. Fans stay. The club is here. It’s cemented in San Jose, and it should be,” Moore told ESPNFC’s Jeff Carlisle.
The Quakes also showed promising signs on the pitch and after Alashe’s early go-ahead goal, Ty Harden put the Quakes up 2-0 and although Chicago pulled one back, the home side sat in to preserve their lead. Not long after the final whistle, the clouds parted and a rainbow appeared above Avaya Stadium, signaling the club’s new beginnings on the pitch and off it.
WHERE’S WONDO? July-August
As you walk past the boot wall in the Earthquakes locker room, donned with each players’ cleats in no particular order, and Chris Wondolowski’s five pairs tucked away in the corner, it is easy to spot the bold, eye-catching team motto in black and blue: “Eleven playing as one.”
Words to live by in football perhaps, but as the Quakes season got down to business this season, they gradually lost touch with this very motto. Following a 2-1 loss to the New England Revolution on the East Coast, Kinnear made his first big tactical change of the season heading into a home meeting with Real Salt Lake. Against New England, Koval and Pierazzi returned as the Quakes’ central-midfield partners in a 4-2-3-1. Yet neither particularly impressed on the night, and against RSL, Kinnear opted to throw Alashe into the deep end as the sole holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1. From that point on, Pierazzi and Koval were restricted to four starts for the rest of the season.
Alashe held his own from the outset, but the larger focus was on the Quakes’ front line as their goalscoring woes reappeared in a 1-0 loss, highlighted by Javier Morales’ beautiful volley on the brink of the half. The tactical nuances were heavily debated but basically, Alashe protected the back four and Garcia was ahead of him in an attacking-midfield role. Wondolowski dropped into the midfield alongside him and Emeghara and Nyassi played opposite of each other. Emeghara was the most guilty of an individualistic style of play, adept at running down the wings but lacking in the area of combination play.
“We’ve sometimes got to be a bit less selfish,” Kinnear said, while Wondolowski similarly lamented, saying: “At times we were too individualistic.”
Although Shea Salinas filled in for a suspended Emeghara during the Whitecap’s visit on April 11, the Quakes’ attacking woes resurfaced upon Emeghara’s return, as the Quakes embarked lost to the New York Red Bulls in the US Open Cup in New York. In the first week of May, Kinnear’s men faced a grueling road-trip consisting of three games, three cities, and 3,623 miles of travel all in seven days. The travel proved all too much for Emeghara and midway through the trip, he found himself sidelined with a knee injury that would keep him out for the rest of the season. With him went the Quakes’ focus on individualism.
Alashe started in all three games in the 4-1-4-1 as the Quakes drew RSL 1-1, then beat Houston 1-0 and gave up a late equalizer in their 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids. Wondolowski scored two of the Quakes’ three goals during this streak from the midfield and the emphasis moved from individualism to his positioning. Wondo is a born poacher, his movement deceiving defenders and knack for popping up in the right places at the right time far from lucky. Later in the season, in October, he was nearly invisible for much of the Quakes’ 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps; yet in the sixty-second minute, he kept tracking the play and making runs and when Cordell Cato burst into the box down the right and saw a shot spilled by the goalkeeper, Wondo was on hand to pick up the pieces and give the Quakes the lead.
The goal epitomized Wondo’s knack for being in the right place and finishing when it matters. Quakes fans argued that stuffing him in the midfield muted his effect; however, Wondo proved that the debate was mostly semantic by scoring the ninety-ninth goal of his Quakes career in a 2-0 win over Columbus. “[It’s] only a number, but a number associated with a group of the best players in the league,” he said after the match.
Orlando visited the following week in the Quakes’ only match of the season at Levi’s Stadium. It is a massive, very corporate stadium that was the oddest of places for Wondolowski, who thrived off poaching goals behind hulking forwards at the 10,000 seater Buck Shaw Stadium, to score the hundredth of his Quakes career.
The result put the Quakes on nineteen points in seventh place in the Western Conference, thirteen games into the season. With a game in hand, however, and only seven points separating them from the top of the table, they began to rid the nerves of a new beginning and got down to work as the team entered the heart of the regular season.
We’re back at the Quakes’ training pitch. It’s Monday, June 14th and the team is preparing for a midweek US Open Cup meeting with their closest local rivals, the Sacramento Republic, the next day. The match was overshadowed by a pending visit to Seattle at the weekend and Kinnear was preparing to start a number of substitutes, including Paulo Renato, Ty Harden, JJ oval, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, Khari Stephenson, Mark Sherrod, and backup goalkeeper Bryan Meredith. It was a one-leg, knockout tie and as such, Kinnear had his team practice penalties.
Sacramento, however, didn’t practice their spot-kicks.
The Quakes were scrappy and unconvincing, highlighting their lack of depth. By the fifty-four minute, Sacramento had taken a 2-0 lead. It was up to Wondo to pull the Quakes back with two late goals in the space of five minutes. The match went into extra-time and after a half hour of scoreless play, penalties loomed.
Kinnear knew he wanted Wondo to take the first kick and sure enough, the US Men’s National Team veteran buried the first penalty of the shootout. Three penalties later it was tied at two all. Although Khari Stephenson missed, Bryan Meredith saved Mickey Daly’s spot-kick to keep the shootout level. But then Pierazzi missed and Gilberto Santos scored. The pressure was on Tommy Thompson, the teenager, who had to make the Quakes’ fifth penalty. Kinnear said of putting Tommy fifth: ”I had a couple guys written down, I said ‘Tommy, you good?’ He said yes. I said, ‘Okay, you’re five.’”
Thompson awoke on Monday morning, in New Zealand, where he had stayed for the best part of three weeks. He had been a part of the US’ U-20 World Cup squad that were knocked out of the tournament in the Quarterfinals on penalties to Serbia, the eventual winners, on Sunday night. The tournament meant he missed the Quakes’ 3-1 away loss to Toronto on May 30th and their 0-0 draw to Dallas at home, a match marred by three controversial red cards.
The 19-year-old witnessed his team lose 5-6 after being substituted in the 108th minute. As such, he actually relished taking the crucial penalty. “Actually, that’s what I was thinking. Getting pulled in the 108th minute was tough when we ended up losing in the shootout so I wanted to avenge our loss.”
His fourteen-hour flight landed on Monday at about “three or four PM” and hemissed the Quakes’ training that day. The very training they practiced penalties. “Nah, I got here, Fatai picked me up at the airport and then just basically slept until it was time to come here,” Thompson told Football Every Day.
Nonetheless, he coolly scored. Emrah Klimenta, Sacramento’s hero in regulation time, still had a chance to win it for the Republic; but Meredith made another crucial save.
It went to sudden death, where James Kiffe, Sacramento’s eighth taker, blazed his penalty high over the crossbar to put the Quakes through to the next round.
It was quarter past nine at night at Stanford Stadium on June 27th. One fireworks show had just ended and another was about to begin; the Quakes had just come back from behind for the third time in four years in the annual California Clasico against the LA Galaxy and the 50,000 strong, sold-out crowd was shifting its attention to the upcoming fourth of July fireworks show after the match.
The triumphant Quakes were exiting the field for the tunnel. Amidst a bevy of autograph-hunters, whose frenzy centered around Chris Wondolowski, Clarence Goodson spoke to two reporters nearby. Goodson had scored a second-half goal to complete the Quakes’ comeback and promptly rounded the advertising boards to jump into the crowd. He couldn’t hear any specific voices in the euphoria — “I was really, really dazed,” he said.
Yet the reserved, quiet figure who usually appears in front of the press had to yell in the reporters’ ears to be heard above the clamor.
In late May and early June, the Quakes had slowly begin to lose steam. They hinged Goodson and Bernardez’s defensive solidity and had allowed just six goals in nine games following the 3-1 win over the Galaxy. Wondo had padded their flat goalscoring record, bagging nine of their nineteen goals in the opening fifteen games of the season, but their lack of depth was startling. Koval and Pierazzi had rapidly fallen out of favor to the point where Kinnear changed formations in Alashe’s absence.
Then, a spark. Garcia set alight a 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, scoring a beautiful goal at the end of a mazy run and assisting Nyassi’s strike. Jordan Stewart had recently returned from injury and provided assurance at the back as well as valuable leadership. He also worked well with Salinas down the left, giving the winger more freedom to cut into the middle and take advantage of his excellent passing range.
The Quakes took their newfound confidence into the Cal Clasico and bossed the game. Although Bingham let in a low, bobbling long-range effort from Juninho early on, Wondo pulled one back before halftime. The Quakes took the momentum in their stride and Goodson powered home his first MLS goal in eight years with a near-post header on the other side of the break. “The big skinny, he had leaps,” Wondo joked.
Kinnear blasted LA’s “crappy” performance, and the loss was made all the more bitter with a long haul back to a makeshift locker room in the Stanford Aquatics Center across the street. They were located a stones’ throw from where the holiday fireworks were stationed, and ash was falling down on the players and coaches as they went through their official post-match press conference, standing poolside. As Wondo was speaking, two bemused swimmers came upon the scene and squirmed their way around the group, sopping wet, before using the adjacent high-dive. In all respects, it was a peculiar gameday.
Quincy Amarikwa started in Avaya Stadium’s regular season opener; just not for the Quakes. The outspoken, twenty-eight-year-old forward was a part of the Chicago Fire’s side that April day, yet fell out of favor under Frank Yallop soon afterward. Kinnear, in search for another forward, traded Ty Hardan for Amarikwa a day before the Cali Clasico. Amarikwa was a short-term replacement for Wondolowski, who left to join the US Men’s National Team’s Gold Cup camp on July first. Condo’s absence was the catalyst for a terrible month for the Quakes, and although Amarikwa epitomized so many values of hard work and a never-say-die attitude that the Quakes appreciate, he was often isolated up front. In the Quakes’ match-day program, he said he’d choose to be stranded on a deserted island with Nyassi above all other Quakes players, but he was stranded all alone up front in July. One can imagine Garber chuckling after a tiny flick of the magic staff we must naturally assume he carries around at all times.
The Quakes’ first match without Wondo was a US Open Cup rematch with the Galaxy just four days after the Clasico. LA had sent the majority of their starting lineup home to rest for their weekend MLS fixture and similarly, Kinnear chose to start his reserves. Although the Quakes held their weight, they were unable to claw their way back after LA’s early go-ahead goal.
At the weekend, Kinnear’s men visited Portland. They sat deep in a 4-5-1, starting Barrera and Pierazzi in the midfield alongside Alashe, throwing Thompson, who enjoyed an extended run in the first-team during Wondo’s absence, and Salinas out wide and Sherrod up top. The makeshift nature of the starting eleven was exposed by a dominant Portland, who saw more than sixty-one percent of the ball and took twenty-two shots before a scrappy late winner finally found its way in. Sherrod was clearly out of his depth and thus found himself replaced by Amarikwa in the Quakes’ meeting with Houston the next weekend. Kinnear experimented with a 4-3-3, but they couldn’t muster any attacking threat nonetheless, with Garcia’s left-hamstring noticeably bugging the midfielder.
Midway through July, Kinnear needed some time to sort his head through things. A midweek friendly with Club America provided a much-needed kickbacks for the fans and an opportunity for the Quakes to sort through some of their kinks.
Club America fans gathered in numbers outside of Avaya Stadium beginning at 10:00 am on match day, Tuesday the fourteenth of July. Although it was technically a home game for the San Jose Earthquakes, the America fans made the atmosphere hostile for the home team. As a part of the International Champions Cup, commonly a preseason tournament treated like international friendlies, there wasn’t much for either team in the game – the Quakes, for one, had their minds cast on a key MLS meeting with the Galaxy on Friday. And yet, the atmosphere spilt onto the pitch. The field was set alight with a surprisingly heated contest, although at least it didn’t actually catch fire from the firecrackers Club America fans threw onto the pitch. “It was sometimes a little too competitive,” Kinnear summarized.
Twenty minutes into the Quakes’ meeting with the Galaxy that Friday, the visitors were firing on all cylinders at the Stubhub Center. Salinas and Nyassi’s pace terrorized LA on either wing and two early goals from Amarikwa put the Quakes cruising ahead. If Steven Gerrard harbored any notions that his MLS debut might be a walk in the park, they were quickly forgotten.
Yet Robbie Keane pulled one back via a penalty and then Gerrard equalized in the thirty-seventh minute with a debut goal. The Galaxy would pull ahead 5-2 by the time the ninety minutes were over to leave the Quakes in the dust, with dirt in their mouth.
At the same time as their winless streak worsened, though, the Quakes as a franchise were experiencing their biggest bonuses off the pitch. Manchester United came to visit Avaya Stadium for a midweek friendly with the Quakes and stayed in the Bay Area for a whole week. United would train on the main pitch and the Quakes kept to their usual practice field. Louis van Gaal was full of praise for the weather and facilities in the Bay Area, although he was less complimentary of his team, who beat the Quakes 3-1. The home side always expected to lose but they made up for the discrepancy in talent with their work ethic and physicality. Wayne Rooney might be able to make MLS defenders look silly on the training ground but won’t soon be winning headers against Goodson and Bernardez.
Kinnear simply wanted to give his side a good time and played twenty-two players, even teenage summer-signing Matheus Silva. Alashe scored a well-deserved goal, assisted by Salinas. It would be the closest thing to a boost in confidence the Quakes stumbled upon that month.
Wondo finally returned for a visit to Vancouver to round off the month, sliding back into the midfield behind Amarikwa in a 4-1-4-1, but anther late goal from Quincy proved in vain as the Quakes were defeated 3-1. At home, the Quakes had achieved their goal of turning Avaya Stadium into a fortress but found themselves trapped inside all too often in an attacking sense, drawing Portland 0-0 on August second and losing 2-1 to Houston on the road, having briefly lost Goodson to injury. Within five weeks, the Quakes’ losing streak had escalated to nine games. Game over game they managed to reach new lows and redefine their rock bottom. Memories of their losing streak in 2014 began to creep into mind as the Quakes slipped second-to-bottom in the Western Conference.
Fortunately for Quakes fans, the 2015 run-in was to prove quite different from the 2014 edition.
PLAYOFF PUSH; September-October
Anibal Godoy’s journey to Avaya Stadium began in Panama City, on the morning of Thursday, August 13, a typically humid, blazing hot summer day in Panama’s capital. He was awaiting his P1 Visa after signing for the Quakes earlier in the week as their fifth highest paid player. The next day, Godoy woke up in Los Angeles after a seven-and-a-half hour flight, connecting to San Jose to meet his new teammates for the first time, and learn he would start in the Quakes’ match that night against the Colorado Rapids, a 1-0 win. He didn’t know English yet, but he said there was no problem communicating on the field, and at the end of the ordeal, Godoy added, “I feel like I’ve already played fifteen games with this group of players.”
“I was prepared mentally. They called me and asked if I was ready to start on my first day here and I said yes. I was rested and motivated by this great opportunity.”
Godoy himself didn’t particularly stand out on the pitch initially, though it was evident from the get-go that his presence in the midfield and eye for a pass could make him a consistent starter. With Alashe suspended, he slid into the defensive midfield role in the 4-1-4-1 as Goodson’s goal propelled the Quakes to a tough-fought, tight win over the Western Conference’s bottom team. Suddenly, their summer skid was over and the playoffs no longer seemed a world away, though the team’s many doubters weren’t yet convinced.
What Godoy allowed Kinnear to do, however, was make his first big tactical change since the 4-1-4-1. Alashe returned for their meeting with Sporting Kansas City on August nineteenth and slid in alongside Godoy in a 4-4-2, with Salinas out on the left and Cato wide right. Wondo played behind Amarikwa, finally getting the best of both of them.
I had an English friend and Leeds United supported in town for the Colorado game. These days, his Leeds allegiance is shorthand for saying that he’s adept at finding positives in a mid-table, second-tier club playing direct football. Before the Quakes match, I asked him to watch out for any standout players and before the tenth minute, he had spotted Shea Salinas.
Salinas’ name also arose in different context in April, at the Sporting Analytics, London conference when the head of research at a major UK rugby club told me that he had done a statistical analysis of the Quakes a few years back and the one player that he remembered had surprisingly stood out was Shea Salinas.
A quick, twenty-nine-year-old winger from Texas, Salinas has found a new vitality under Kinnear in San Jose, making more appearances this season than ever before, after being gradually integrated into the starting eleven in the early months of the season. He also bagged the most goals in a single season, three, in his career.
Salinas is accustomed to the underrated label: “Every year I feel like somebody writes an article that says this has been Shea Salinas’ breakout season,” he told Football Every Day at the Quakes’ training session in early October. “I feel like they’ve said that every year…I just think it’s funny.”
Just three minutes into the Quakes’ visit to Kansas City, among the hottest teams in MLS, Salinas found himself blazing down the wing before cutting the ball back to Cato, who finished low at the near post. Wondo buried a penalty seventeen minutes in and Godoy ended a jinxing run with a cool finish ten minutes later. The Quakes took the momentum from their dream start into the second half, when Salinas assistant another goal for Cato and Wondo scored a glorious header from Alashe’s cross. Only the woodwork and SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia kept the Quakes from scoring even more and finally the final-whistle spared Kansas City from suffering even more embarrassment from the Quakes’ comprehensive win.
The Quakes then visited Eastern Conference leaders DC United and Wondo buried another early go-ahead goal. In the fifty-second minute, Salinas topped off his road-trip with a well-deserved goal, assisted by Amarikwa. Quakes fans could now only try to remain calm. If there was a nervous, restrained excitement after their win over Colorado, all their pent up emotion from the losing streak came flooding out in a storm of seven goals, thirty-six shots, and most importantly, six points heading home into a meeting with the LA Galaxy.
Marc Pelosi’s long march home took a far more convoluted path. The Bay Area native and graduate of the De Anza Force Academy joined Liverpool as one of US soccer’s top teenage prospects in Europe. On occasion, he would even train with Liverpool legends such as Steven Gerrard in Liverpool’s senior team. That is, until two major injuries forced Pelosi back across the pond to rebuild his career with the San Jose Earthquakes. Even before the injuries, Pelosi had his feet firmly on the ground. “My hopes are to one day play for the first team of Liverpool, but you never know what could happen and just to play football and have a good career anywhere in England, in Europe or the States is what I hope for,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in a 2012 interview.
The German-born midfielder served as backup to Alashe and Godoy, making five substitute appearances and earning one start, in the Quakes’ loss to Houston, in his first month at the club. It wasn’t until the LA Galaxy visited, however, that Pelosi made a real statement of his intent.
That night, Pelosi and Gerrard’s paths happened to cross again as Gerrard followed the youngster across the pond, albeit on an entirely different account. Gerrard had recently joined LA as one of the league’s biggest stars, with a salary higher than the Quakes’ entire wage bill. By chance, Alashe, was sidelined with an injury suffered the previous week and Pelosi was thrown into a holding midfield role far more defensive than he is used to, primarily to mitigate Gerrard’s influence. “I’ve trained with him and I’ve played with him in training games all the time, but I got to play against him now and it’s fun. Playing against any world class player like that, you learn a lot from what they do,” Pelosi said of playing against his former teammate, adding that they had a chance to catch up before the game.
Pelosi has definitely inherited some of Gerrard’s tough-tackling style and only Shaun Francis made more tackles than Pelosi on the night. “Playing in the middle you’ve got to be strong and tackle hard…growing up everyone always said I was a little bit aggressive,” said Pelosi. “They always get mad at me in training but I say, ‘just deal with it, it’s part of the game.’” And at the end of the game, Pelosi waited outside the Galaxy’s locker room as a team representative carried out a jersey swap with Gerrard.
The Quakes’ midfield dominated on the night, rendering Gerrard almost invisible, a large part in defeating the visitors 1-0, thanks to a well-deserved goal for Salinas. Among the swaths of red Liverpool kits congregating high in one corner of Avaya Stadium, there was one woman in a Pelosi kit who must have felt very vindicated by the result. While Gerrard had sixty-four touches and made fifty-two passes, Pelosi had sixty-eight touches and made six more passes than his opposite.
“Sometimes we play with one defensive and two attacking [midfielders] and I make a lot of runs going forward, but today Dom talked to me — we were playing with two defensive midfielders, obviously, Anibal and I — and he said to keep it a little bit more simple and not go forward too much. Pick your chances to go forward but just stay in the middle, keep the ball moving and control the game a bit more,” Pelosi summarized.
The Quakes’ will to win fifty-fifty balls was among the many strengths that came with the squad’s newfound confidence. Kinnear’s men won forty-six of duels compared to LA’s thirty-eight; Salinas sprinted back to stop a dangerous Giovani Dos Santos counter-attack from a corner; David Bingham’s was aerially dominant in his box. When the Quakes were holding their lead late on, he did brilliantly to come out and tip wide Omar Gonzalez’s header destined to be tapped in at the near post.
Although the Galaxy fumed at Leonardo’s red card early in the second half, the Quakes thoroughly deserved the three points nevertheless. The Galaxy were very poor in the first half, at best uninterested, and the Quakes dominated the closing stages when playing with a man advantage. In the last play of the game, Pelosi nonchalantly chipped a pass down the right into the feet of Wynne, who cut the ball inside and played it into substitute Adam Jahn, whose low effort from the edge of the box deflected just wide of the post. Kinnear’s men oozed class and barged right through the classiest team in MLS to cap a fantastic run of form in August. With seven of their last nine matches of the regular season at home, anything seemed possible for the Quakes.
As you walk down the long hall and into the Quakes’ dressing room, to your right is a timeline of the Quakes’ history, marked with photos of the organization’s most memorable moments. On your left you pass multiple rooms — first the manager’s office, which is where Kaval, general manager John Doyle, Kinnear and their families convene after their matches, then multiple equipment rooms — until the right wall makes way for an arched entrance into the spacious locker room.
It’s mid-September and the Quakes’ August form has passed, the players conceding a disappointing 1-1 draw with the Seattle Sounders. The Heritage Cup, meant to honor the only NASL rivalry in Major League Soccer, sat pitifully, unwanted in the middle of the Quakes locker room. It’s main purpose was to serve as a goal in a one-man scrimmage for the entertainment of Godoy’s toddler, who was blissfully unaware of the damp feeling in the locker room.
Obafemi Martins’ late equalizer made a draw feel like a loss for the Quakes and although there were positives for the Quakes to take from the match — Pelosi and Godoy both returned from international duty, drastically reducing the Quakes’ vulnerability from turnovers, Kinnear noted — Chris Wondolowski said: “I think we’re running out of time to take positives, silver linings and things like that…. [In all of] these last six games [we] really need three [points]. That’s been our mentality for way too long now, after we to out of July. You know that you will pick some up and that you will drop some, but we have to stop dropping leads, that’s for sure.”
The draw had followed a game against the Philadelphia Union that ended the Quakes’ four-match win streak. Godoy and Pelosi were whisked away on international duty and Alashe and Garcia were only half-fit returning from injuries. Although Wondo buried a penalty to give the Quakes a second-half lead, the Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers came back from the death with two goals off the head of Conor Casey.
The Quakes surrendered yet another lead in a midweek meeting with the Montreal Impact. Bingham was caught cheating to the wrong side when Kyle Bekker’s first-half near-post effort sailed in from the edge of the box, Montreal’s only goal in their draw with the Quakes. To his credit, Bingham owned up to his mistake – right out of the showers, he didn’t beat around the bush with reporters. “I just wasn’t good enough,” he admitted. “This one is on me tonight. There are ten other guys on that field busting their butts the whole game.”
But Kinnear understood that these mistakes happen in the beautiful game. “I didn’t go in there and throw anything, or point fingers and throw some f-bombs,” the Quakes’ coach said.
Bernardez was suspended and Marvell Wynne replaced the center-back alongside Goodson, who himself was returning from an injury that kept him out of the Philadelphia and Seattle matches, with Alashe replacing him.
This was still the most devastating of the Quakes’ three 1-1 draws in the space of a month. Against a ten-man Montreal side — Ambroise Oyongo was sent off in the forty-ninth minute — without their star Didier Drogba, the Quakes missed a key chance to boost their playoff hopes as Bekker’s goal negated Wondolowski’s early poachers finish.
Goodson was also yellow-carded for the fifth time of the season, suspending him for their trip to New York City FC in the Quakes’ circus of absences. Alashe covered for him but the Quakes’ season seemed to be slipping out of their hands yet again as their hosts went up by three goals in the sixty-fifth minute.
Yet it’s not in the Quakes’ blood to know when it’s over; when they’ve lost a game or when they’re playoff hopes are done and dusted. In a short video to be played on the big-screen at home matches, Bingham and Wynne likened themselves to a cheetahs, Sherrod said his spirit animal was a sea otter and Wondolowski said he would be a lion in his next life; but be it a cheetah, sea otter (er, sea otter?), or lion, it took resilience to absorb all the hits that the Earthquakes did and still bounce back. “Everyone is fighting for everything,” said Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear.
Within seven minutes of NYCFC’s third, the Quakes had pulled one back through Amarikwa and Wondo made it 3-2 win a penalty four minutes later. Although an equalizer was beyond their reach, the comeback gave Kinnear’s men hope heading back home for a meeting with Real Salt Lake.
After some years as a child playing Fantasy Soccer, I yearned for something more hands-on, so I created my own game in a small little blue notebook. It involved dice and a hand-made probability chart. I would manually play each match, taking pleasure from watching the season play out, particularly when, for example, inflicting pain upon an imaginary Jose Mourinho when his Chelsea would trail Newcastle United by a couple of goals.
After some years, my patience for dice-drama faded and I ultimately lost that little notebook. After a recent move, however, I had the pleasant surprise of finding it buried in a box in the garage. Trying out my game for old times’ sake, I still found delight in the random streaks of luck that would determine key results in the season.
Against RSL, the dice finally fell in the Quakes’ favor, as a deflected last-minute goal reversed the club’s recent streak of disappointing home results, at a critical moment in the team’s season.
Throughout the season, the Quakes’ luck has spurted in various directions. The last time Real Salt Lake visited Avaya Stadium, they slapped the Quakes across the face with a stunning volley off the boot of Javier Morales that proved to be the match winner.
As Jeff Cassar’s RSL visited San Jose this afternoon, this luck came back from the dead and gifted the Quakes their first late, game-winning goal of the season, something they had become so well known for back at Buck Shaw Stadium.
In the eighty-ninth minute of their delightfully strange match, Matias Perez Garcia saw a deflected effort catch Nick Rimando off guard and bobble into the back of an empty net. If the match hadn’t been crazy enough already, Garcia proceeded to whip off his shirt in celebration. “Right when I took my shirt off,” Garcia said, he realized that he was already on a yellow card and was subsequently sent off. “I got caught up in all the euphoria,” he explained via a translator.
The win put the Quakes back within touching distance of the playoffs heading into a meeting with the Whitecaps in early October. Alashe and Pelosi were away on international duty, so Koval filled in alongside Godoy in the 4-4-2 and Cato replaced Garcia. The Quakes were woeful in the first period, and Wondo explained: “I thought we came out with good energy, but kind of in the wrong places. I thought we were a bit jittery at times, giving away silly fouls, silly set pieces and got punished.” Vancouver took a first half lead when Rivero’s effort took the most unlucky of deflections off Francis, back onto his shin, over Bingham and into the back of the net.
Yet in the second half, the Quakes “came out with a better attitude,” as Kinnear put it and Wondo netted an equalizer late on.
Deep into the four minutes of stoppage time, however, all could have been lost, as San Jose hauled all their men into Vancouver’s box for a last chance free-kick that Godoy uncharacteristically scuffed. The ball fell right to Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh, who surged forward on a two on-one against David Bingham, only for the goalkeeper to miraculously pounce on Manneh’s final touch.
“I saw a bit of a heavy touch and I thought that was my best chance to go on and stop their counter and it worked out,” said Bingham. “If he was going to beat me, he was going to beat me, but I didn’t want to beat myself in that situation. I didn’t want to give him an easy goal, so I stood up and saw my chance and took it.”
The save kept the Quakes’ playoff hopes alive and surely made up for Bingham’s error versus Montreal. The save encapsulated the progression of Bingham’s Quakes career, which began nervously but slowly blossomed over the course of the season. He came up big on multiple occasions against Vancouver, most notably to keep out a curling twenty yard effort from Octavio Rivero. From Bingham to Pelsoi and Alashe, the Quakes’ future looks bright.
Kinnear’s men were still below the red line, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Despite the curveballs they were thrown from every possible international match and their frequent dips in form, they maintained hope. That hope still hung by a thread as they sat level on points and ahead on goal difference with Portland in the final playoff spot. In his post match press conference, Dominic Kinnear couldn’t help letting out a little chuckle at the absurdity of it all.
“You always get fight out of this group,” said Quakes defender Clarence Goodson. “You got a lot of guys with a lot of pride working their tails off. We’re not the most beautiful team to watch, although I think this team is capable of playing beautiful soccer, much more so than in years past, but no matter what you get fight out of the group.”
This trademark fight was again showcased in their final home game of the regular season, a meeting with Sporting Kansas City. Bernardez was out suspended, and Wynne filled in at the back. The Quakes dug in and ground out a 1-0 win. The only goal of the game came from Godoy, who got on the end of Wondo’s one-touch squared pass across the goal. Amarikwa had started the move by muscling his way past four SKC defenders then releasing the ball to Salinas, who lofted a brilliant pass to Wondo’s run.
The three points left the Quakes with many routes into the playoffs heading a visit to Dallas, their final match of the season. If either SKC, Vancouver, Seattle, or Portland lost the Quakes could book their spot in the playoffs with a win.
The mood was chipper and exiting the stadium following the win over Kansas City, Quakes President Dave Kaval reassured me that this wouldn’t be the club’s last home match this season.
I’m a bit OCD about leaving stadiums early. Ever since “beating the traffic” before the end of the 2013 California Clasico at Stanford Stadium, I’ve been reluctant to leave the action even for bathroom breaks. This season, I missed just one goal at the San Jose Earthquakes’ new Avaya Stadium, in the Seattle Sounders’ mid-August visit.
The Seattle contest was a tight, nervy affair as Fatai Alashe broke Seattle’s defensive dam in the second half and the Quakes’ playoff hopes looked back on track. However, I picked a poor match to tempt the fates, walking away just before the Sounders bagged their equalizer.
In hindsight, that draw may have been the key result that denied the Quakes a playoff berth this season. In the end, a 2-1 loss to Dallas on the final day of the season led the Quakes to miss the playoffs by four points. In a season of new beginnings, the Quakes were haunted by old demons yet again.
“Every year I’ve played in the league except for 2012 I can look back at five or six games and say, ‘oh we’ve dropped points here, we’ve dropped points there,’” Quakes winger Shea Salinas said at training. “I don’t there are many teams that go a year without being able to say that. It’s something you can’t control.”
The Quakes looked confident in the first half against Dallas, with Amarikwa putting The Goonies in front in the thirteenth minute. Yet an unfortunate defense mix-up saw Dallas pull one back and after news that other results were turning against the Quakes, the cameras panned to Wondolowski. He swore loudly.
The final blow was delivered when Garcia got himself sent off in the second half, blood rushing to his head before slapping Mauro Diaz in the back of the head. The realization that their season was over was rapidly overcoming the Quakes as Victor Ulloa completed Dallas’ comeback with eleven minutes to go.
Many hours after the final whistle blew, I still hadn’t received the customary post-match press release from the team. Eventually, I stopped waiting; there’s no point being caught up in what-ifs for too long. It’s a lesson that Quakes fans are learning the hard way as the club shuts and locks their windows for the winter. A collage of what-ifs and deflated hopes are somewhat familiar sensations for The Goonies, but who knows what gifts will come out of the offseason this year.
Over the course of the season, Avaya Stadium delivered a sellout crowd to see the US Women’s National Team, hosted the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, Manchester United, and with news that the stadium won the bid to host the 2016 MLS All-Star game, the momentum aimed at growing the football community in San Jose, which having just passed the 1 million population mark, is gaining steam, and so are the Quakes. At the All-Star announcement, San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo had one message for soccer fans around the country: “Bring it on, we’re ready.” It’s a mentality that the Quakes adopted this season.