VANCOUVER, B.C. — Travel in Major League Soccer is not for the faint of heart. Road trips for some teams span thousands of miles, multiple time zones, often flying coach, at the mercy of a litany of possible delays. It's unfamiliar beds in vaguely familiar rooms, with none of the comforts of home, save the occasional fresh baked cookie on offer at the front desk.
But travel is also an opportunity, to get away from the routine and find focus on what's most important, in work and in life. It's a chance to recharge the batteries, to foster perspective, to set new plans moving forward. A new destination is as much a break as it is a fresh start.
For the San Jose Earthquakes, their trip to Vancouver for the season's penultimate contest was all of that, and more. 2017 has seen the team loiter near the playoff spots in the Western Conference, mostly due to a stellar home record, and despite a brutal road mark. The weekend's matchup with the Whitecaps, the top team in the West, playing for a chance to clinch the number one seed, would be the Quakes sternest test of the season.
It couldn't simply be business as usual for San Jose on Sunday. It had to be more, much more, to keep postseason hopes alive. Another road blowout — the summer had seen the team suffer one after another — would cripple the team when it could least afford it. A timeline of that fateful afternoon:
2:10 p.m. — The ride from the hotel to BC Place is simple enough (it takes more time to load and unload the bus than the actual driving), and the pregame warm-ups are little changed from previous weeks. The pregame walk of the field yields no surprises — goal frames stand where expected, dimensions are standard, artificial turf is, well, what it is — and the instructions from the coaching staff are shared to every player.
3:31 p.m. — The crowds of fans are beginning to fill the area around the stadium, tucked into the neck of east downtown, resplendent in Whitecaps gear from head to toe. A few intrepid Quakes supporters have also arrived, but their black and blue garb goes largely unnoticed. The home fans are giddy with confident conversation, convinced the woeful road form the Earthquakes have displayed of late will ensure three points and the top spot in Western Conference MLS Cup Playoffs bracket. It's not hubris, not exactly, but quiet expectation.
3:58 p.m. — The Quakes starting eleven is training together along one sideline, as the reserves play kick-around by the other. Andrew Tarbell mans the goal, snatching crosses out of the air, steeling himself for the potent Whitecaps attack that awaits. Chris Leitch presides over the entire affair, stepping in to provide guidance as required. Fans are slowly filing to their seats, taking in the warm-ups with a bit of curiosity.
4:34 p.m. — The roof is open at BC Place, letting in the last of the afternoon's setting sun, as well as blasts of cool Canadian air. The screens drape above the stands, blocking off the upper deck, and creating some semblance of intimacy in the otherwise cavernous dome. The music is played louder, and the scoreboard flashes all sorts of pregame info. Then, the familiar MLS entrance tune fills the stadium, and lines of Quakes and Caps emerge from the players' tunnel.
4:40 p.m. — Leitch, two weeks removed from coaching the Earthquakes to a resilient win over Portland, selects the same starting line-up for San Jose's most important game of the season. The spark-plug Jahmir Hyka plays one wing, while potent Designated Player Vako mans the other. The inspirational Victor Bernardez takes his place at center back — maybe a step slower than the Whitecaps attacking threats of Fredy Montero and Yordy Reyna, but not lacking in passion in the face of the game's gravity. Internationally seasoned center midfielders Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren look energized.
4:55 p.m. — Just a quarter hour into the match, and it is clear that these Quakes are not the same as those that capitulated to Real Salt Lake back in August, were steamrolled by the New York Red Bulls in July, that wilted against the Portland Timbers in June. These Earthquakes show fight and verve against the best in the West. They are hanging tough in hostile territory, finding their footing when it is vital to do so. There is hope.
5:08 p.m. — The sell-out crowd of 22,120 goes into a frenzy, as Reyna taps home a perfect cross to put the Whitecaps on top. The Quakes defense was caught out on the play, but the finger-pointing that could have materialized does not, and, despite, the gut punch, the team gets back to business. Too often this summer, a first allowed goal was followed by another, and another, as San Jose let collective shoulders slump. None of that was evident on this afternoon. It couldn't be. The Whitecaps did their best to find another goal in that first half, but Tarbell and team resisted.
5:25 p.m. — Halftime talk is muted among Quakes fans as nervousness takes hold during the break. A look at the out of town scoreboard shows that results in Seattle and Colorado are going San Jose's way, but a loss on this day would signal a lost opportunity to capitalize on FC Dallas' and Real Salt Lake's failings. The Earthquakes defense had looked up to snuff so far, but the offense wasn’t clicking. Still, there are 45 minutes of soccer to play.
5:55 p.m. — Tarbell again saves the Quakes from giving up a second goal, making another acrobatic dive to deny Montero the net. He is the future #1 for San Jose between the posts, and he's not wilting under the constant pressure from the Whitecaps. Florian Jungwirth stands taller than his height as well, willing the defense not to concede, and Ceren is grinding the game in midfield, throwing Vancouver off its rhythm. The home crowd is getting antsy, while those tiny pockets of Quakes faithful are beginning to stir.
6:10 p.m. — Goal, San Jose! Right in front of those, donned in Earthquakes scarves, Chris Wondolowski and Vako deliver some magic. A deft flick-on from the Quakes captain, an expert touch by the Georgian attacker, a guiding shot over the Whitecaps keeper — San Jose's Designated Players deliver when the team needs them the most. The stunned home supporters sit on hands. A muted celebration from the traveling support deep in enemy lands. The Earthquakes are level, and the momentum is theirs.
6:23 p.m. — A tiring Quakes side buckles down to run out the clock, strategically pressing forward, seeking out a game winner, but not stretching themselves so much as to open up the game for Vancouver’s counterattacks. Ceren is gassed, Bernardez too, and it's all hands on deck from forward to keeper to keep the Whitecaps from regaining the lead. Tommy Thompson comes in, the only San Jose substitute of the game, and inspires a look at goal. A comeback win seems within the realm of possibility.
6:29 p.m. — The final whistle sounds, and players finally come to rest. Some, like Kofi Sarkodie, collapse to the turf in exhaustion. All know the magnitude of the result — the most valuable point of all points — and slowly learn that they've climbed to number six in the West. A rejuvenating wave captures Quakes players and fans alike as the 1-1 draw puts San Jose in control of their postseason qualification destiny. "Win and we're in!" becomes the only thought worth having. The team will have everything to play for next Sunday against Minnesota United.
6:50 p.m. — Droves of disappointed Whitecaps fans make their way to the concourses and filter out into the chilly evening air. There is a feeling of lost opportunity palpable in their lowered voices and muted expressions. Vancouver will still play for number one in the conference next weekend, but fans know they needed this one. Meanwhile, lost among the throngs are a few of the elated, travelers, like their team, to this faraway MLS outpost, satisfied that the season will matter for another week. The Quakes character was on examination this day, and the team came through with flying colors.
Sustained success in MLS walks a fine line, and momentum at the right stages of the season, separate the haves from the have nots. The San Jose Earthquakes can join those haves this Sunday with a win in their closing match. It is all in their hands — there's no other angle to the story. These Quakes have been building to this moment, the stage is set, it is their time to shine.