"Adversity does not build character, it reveals it." James Lane Allen
The San Jose Earthquakes 2017 season will be defined by what happens this weekend and next. Currently on the outside looking in on the MLS Cup Playoffs race, the Quakes have two games remaining to make a push to finish in the top six of the Western Conference. The first is away at the Vancouver Whitecaps; the last at home against Minnesota United.
Now, to be clear, the adversity the Quakes face is on part self inflicted, as their results in the first 32 games so far this season have been uneven: 12 wins, 14 losses, 6 ties. San Jose has proven that they can get results in the friendly confines of Avaya Stadium (and Stanford Stadium, too), collecting 9 of those wins at home, but take the team out of the Bay Area, and it has struggled mightily. And still, whatever the trends of those previous 32 games, it will be the results from this Sunday and next that are all that matter.
Since a coaching change at midseason saw rookie manager Chris Leitch take over for the venerable Dominic Kinnear, the Earthquakes have sunk to new levels of futility on the road: 8 games played, 27 goals allowed, a paltry 3 points from 24 on offer. And yet, with one big victory in Vancouver in the season’s penultimate game, against the top team in the West, the Quakes could still find themselves in on a chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2012.
Is it a must-win against the Whitecaps? Realistically, without a doubt, though scenarios exist that can see the Quakes draw, or even lose, in Vancouver and still manage to finish in the top six. Every team in the West has played the same number of games to this point — the first time that's been true since the first month of the season — and San Jose sits one point behind FC Dallas for number six, tied with Real Salt Lake at number seven. The Quakes will need to pass both in the standings to make the playoffs.
If the calculations at such website as fivethirtyeight.com and sportsclubstats.com are to believed, San Jose can almost assure itself a ticket to the postseason with two wins in its last two games. The Quakes would finish the season at 48 points if that were to happen — two points below the historic target of 50 to make the MLS postseason, but in a Western Conference that is this year not performing up to those standards — but would still need other results to go their way. They don't control their own fate, but they are in full control of their approach to the Caps and MNUFC.
It starts Sunday at BC Place, a stadium where San Jose has found little success since the Whitecaps joined MLS eight seasons ago, but where the team did earn a victory one year ago. The futile Earthquakes side that fell flat on its collective face against the Chicago Fire three weeks ago needs to be cleared from memory. The resilient Quakes that rallied against Portland to earn a valuable win in the team's last game need to push that momentum even further.
The odds of a result at Vancouver this Sunday are extremely low: 18% for three points and 23% for one. The Caps are big favorites: 59% to win. But the Quakes have had two weeks to get ready for this road trip. The travel is manageable — a two hour flight and the same time zone as California — and Leitch and the rest of the coaching crew should have the team fully prepared. Not just for the start of the game, but ready with contingency plans, adjustments, in case it doesn't start in the Quakes favor. No excuses for this one — the season is on the line.
A lot of fuss has been made recently about heart and passion when it comes to successful soccer — look no further than the hand wringing and finger pointing going on following the U.S. Men's National Team's historic choke in World Cup qualifying. Of course, it is a vital resource upon which to draw when playing for one's country. Club soccer is not quite the same, but there still is pride in playing for the crest, and the responsibility that comes with cashing a paycheck. Fans, who in part fund those paychecks, demand nothing but the best from these Quakes, especially with the season on the brink. It's time to put-up or shut-up.
Mathematically, the Earthquakes can lose in Vancouver and still make the playoffs — MLS is forgiving that way — so it's not technically a must-win game. However, if the mentality that dropping points on Sunday is acceptable and at all exists in the team, in the coaching staff, at this point in the year and with so much at stake, then they might as well step aside. A club that in the past has strived, and sometimes thrived, as the blue collar underdogs has the very stage to show off that spirit when they take the field against the Whitecaps. Anything less seals the door a little tighter on that fading Never-Say-Die club culture.
This Sunday and next, the level of passion on display, the heart of the team from forward to back, will define San Jose Earthquakes soccer in 2017, and potentially in the years to come. Stand tall, strong, and forge a path to a brighter future; fold, capitulate, and take another step backwards towards irrelevancy. Does it really come down to two games, two results? Emphatically, the answer is yes.