Style points count for very little in Major League Soccer. Sure, soccer purists enjoy watching a possession game, one chock full of technical expertise and pinpoint passing. But in MLS? That is not necessarily the recipe for success.
Take the last two San Jose Earthquakes home games: a 1-1 draw against D.C. United and a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls. Which one was three-times as enjoyable to watch, and which one was worth three-times as many points in the standings.
Against DCU, the Quakes dominated possession 56.8% to 43.2%. They batted the ball around effortlessly on defense and sent attacking forays into their opponent's third time and time again. 27 crosses into the area were a result of all that possession, yet San Jose managed to net only one of those opportunities. Pretty soccer at times, but just a single point in the Western Conference table.
Compare that to Wednesday's match against the depleted Red Bulls, a team that has not scored a lot this year, but does have a solid reputation for controlling the ball. Against the Quakes at Avaya Stadium, New York held a possession advantage of 58.1% to 41.9% -- more than flipped from the DCU game -- yet lost its fifth game of 2016, all by shutout. Meanwhile, the Quakes weathered the Red Bull storm and capitalized on the chances they had. Pragmatic soccer at times, but a ripe reward for their efforts.
"New York does a great job of pressing and I think they made it very difficult for us," said Chris Wondolowski. "I think we started to make better decisions and it was a gritty game. You look at the DC game, I thought we played prettier and got a tie, but I'll take these games and three points all day."
Wondolowski scored the capper on the evening, heading home a pinpoint cross from Shea Salinas to take his season total to 5 -- tops in MLS -- and career mark to 114 goals -- level with Ante Razov for fourth all-time in league history. Fatai Alashe, scoring his first goal of 2016, lit up the scoreboard in the first half, seeing his deflected shot from outside the area slip by Red Bulls' goalkeeper Luis Robles.
"In the back of the net is all that matters," said Alashe. "You can't always score the pretty goals. I don't tend to score the pretty goals, so I'll take the one that I can get for sure."
Gritty and not pretty, according to Wondo. Not how, but how many goals scored, stressed Alashe. These Quakes have quickly committed themselves to earning results in 2016 -- those of the three-point variety. Add in the expertise of David Bingham in goal -- he made five very important saves against the Red Bulls and collected his second shutout of the season -- and San Jose has established its modus operandi to break a three-season postseason drought.
The win against New York also snapped a three game winless streak and propelled the Quakes to fourth place in the West. They now have 11 points in six games: double digits at this point in a season for only the third time since rejoining MLS in 2008. The other two years -- 13 points from six games in 2012 and 12 from 6 in 2010 -- San Jose made the MLS Cup Playoffs. Points in the spring count as much as points in the fall.
Up next for the Earthquakes is a visit to Portland and a Saturday match against the defending MLS Cup champions. The Timbers have struggled to start 2016 -- losing at home Wednesday night to table toppers FC Dallas -- and already count one loss against San Jose. Portland, like New York, likes to possess the ball, so expect San Jose and head coach Dominic Kinnear to employ a similar strategy at Providence Park.
After all, for these Quakes, gritty trumps pretty.