Back in 2012, en route to the club's second-ever Supporters' Shield, the San Jose Earthquakes had a penchant for winning games late -- even deep into stoppage time -- scoring goals seemingly at will when it mattered most. Those Quakes earned the moniker "Never Say Die," and it worked to the tune of a 66 point season with a club-record 72 goals scored. A run to the MLS Cup final seemed almost a certainty.
But the Goonie-Quakes did die, most spectacularly, in a first-round two-leg playoff loss to rivals LA Galaxy, losing 3-1 at Buck Shaw Stadium to close the curtain on their 2012 campaign. A late Ike Opara effort could have staved off elimination and catapulted the defender into Earthquakes' lore; instead, his skied shot marked the passing of the Goonies and the last playoff game San Jose has played.
Looking to return to the postseason for the first time since that fateful evening, the Earthquakes travel to Frisco, Texas to face the Western Conference regular season champions in what essentially amounts to a must-win match. A draw could be enough for San Jose to reach the West's top-six, but even a win may not be enough depending on the other conference results on MLS Decision Day.
"When we step on the field in the first minute, a draw is not good enough," said head coach Dominic Kinnear just hours before the team boarded a flight for Texas. "We have to go out and try to win the game."
Kinnear is no stranger to the MLS Cup Playoffs, having led the Houston Dynamo to a postseason berth in eight of the nine season he spent coaching the Orange. Twice his teams won MLS Cup, and twice they were runners-up. If anyone in the Earthquakes organization has the gravitas to talk about what it takes to make the playoffs, it is Kinnear.
"He's treated this week like any other," said midfielder Shea Salinas to Center Line Soccer. "We've trained hard every week this season and nothing has changed this week. It's important not to psyche yourself up too much and then not play so well. We've been playing well, so it's just a matter of keep doing what we're doing."
In an intense Friday training session at Avaya Stadium -- possibly the last training session of the season if Decision Day does not go their way -- the Earthquakes looked sharp in a short-field scrimmage. David Bingham was making sharp saves, Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez were commanding the center of the defense, and rookies Marc Pelosi and Fatai Alashe were partnering like veterans in the center of the park. Even finishing drills looked as sharp as at any point this season. These Quakes were ready for the challenge of facing a tough FC Dallas team.
"We do know that Dallas is a good team and are playing very well right now," said Kinnear, "but it is important that we don't go in afraid. We can't defend for 90 minutes and hope to get a 0-0 result."
The Earthquakes have been very stingy on defense as of late, and that will serve them well on Sunday, but the team will have to take some chances up the field, and the offense will have to find the back of the net for San Jose to realistically have a chance to make the postseason. No one more than team MVP and leading scorer Chris Wondolowski knows that.
"We have to be smart with our shape, but we have to score," Wondolowski told reporters after Friday's training session. "We can't finish with zero goals. We have to get one at least one, if not more, so we have to take our chances when they come."
Having their collective backs against the wall for the better part of a month has made these Quakes mentally strong heading into the season finale. A gritty 1-0 win against Sporting Kansas City last Friday kept San Jose's playoff dreams alive, and the message then as it will be on Sunday is keep a full focus for 90 minutes. Especially against a team that is 12-2-2 at Toyota Stadium this season and still has hopes of raising the 2015 Supporters' Shield after the final whistle.
"We have a very strong mentality," said Wondolowski. "It's been a bit of a blessing in disguise that we've had a two or three games where if we lost we were done. We've had that mentality for a couple games now, and we know what it takes to win. Dallas is a very tough task, especially on the road, but we are going to have that same mentality."
Does Kinnear feel the need to do anything more to rally the troops? Watching the team train this week for Dallas, the complete effort from everyone on the team, suggests the answer in no. Even the coach knows it is pretty much out of his hands when it comes to the motivational speeches he could endeavor to deliver. It's all up to the eleven guys that step on that field with their season in the balance.
"There's enough guys in the locker room that have been around for a while that I don't have to say a lot," said Kinnear. "I didn't say this to them then, but last week we played Kansas City, and that was a must-win game when you think about it. And I thought the way the guys played with the amount of pressure put on them was very inspiring.
"If we have that same attitude going into Dallas, it gives us a great chance to get a win."