To a man, when asked in the preseason what the number one goal was for the San Jose Earthquakes this year, every player said without hesitation: Make the playoffs. And now, 33 games into the season, with one game left, the Quakes control their own destiny when it comes to achieving that accomplishment.
Beat Minnesota United on Sunday afternoon in the friendly confines of Avaya Stadium, and San Jose will enjoy it’s first trip to the MLS postseason since 2012. To put it simply, it’s win and you’re in.
“It’s exciting,” said team captain Chris Wondolowski, one of the few holdovers from the previous playoff qualifiers. “The last couple of years we’ve fought to the end, but it hasn’t come for us. It’s nice knowing you have a home game, where you know if you win you’re in. It’s nice having that importance on the game. It’s refreshing.”
For most of the roster, postseason play in San Jose has never been a reality. Homegrown signing Tommy Thompson, who has only ever known professional soccer as an Earthquake and joined the team two years after it’s 2012 Supporters’ Shield campaign, the magnitude of Sunday’s game is very well understood.
“I’m really excited,” said Thompson. “We have worked hard all year to put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs, and now we are one win away. The locker room is ready, everyone is focused, and Sunday can’t come soon enough.”
The last day of the Major League Soccer season will feature all 22 teams playing 11 matches at the same time, kick-off at 1:00 p.m. Pacific time. Eleven of the available twelve postseason berths across both conferences have already been secured. Only the last seed in the Western Conference is up for grabs, and the Earthquakes will be battling Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas to earn it.
The Quakes comeback draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps the weekend before — as well as losses the same day by RSL and Dallas — has put San Jose in the driver’s seat to capture the last playoff slot available. Win and you’re in is the simplest path to the sixth seed. And while a draw or loss to Minnesota still leaves options for how the Quakes can make the postseason, it will require other results go their way. Might that distraction take the players’ focus off the task at hand?
“No, not at all,” said Wondolowski. “It’s one of those things where you know what you need to do. I always want that, leaving it up to us and having our destiny in our hands as well. It’s about us getting the win and not looking at the scoreboard.”
The Earthquakes enter the last weekend of the season with almost their entire roster available for selection against Minnesota United. Rookie of the year candidate Nick Lima is questionable for Sunday, so he is unlikely to play, and head coach Chris Leitch is expected to feature the same starting eleven that has earned results in the last two matches — a 2-1 win against Portland at home and the aforementioned 1-1 draw at Vancouver. The rookie coach is confident his team will rise to the challenge, and his message has been as clear as possible during this week’s preparation.
“Focus on our game,” said Leitch. “I’ve said to everyone there’s no sense in looking at anyone else and wondering what they are going to do or how that’s going to shake out. We have to focus on what we’re doing, and that’s it.”
The Earthquakes haven’t made it easy on themselves this season. The team has been solid at home, where they play this weekend, earning a 9-5-2 record in the Bay Area. But results on the road have not come easy, and a string of multiple-goal losses inflated the Quakes glaring goal differential to -22 — second worst in all of MLS. Leitch recognized that keeping the team’s morale positive was every bit as important as any game planning would be.
“At this point, with these games, there is a lot on the line and there are implications with every goal scored and conceded,” said Leitch. “To keep our head in it and have the right disposition and commitment says a lot for sure.”
The MLS Cup playoffs are essentially a mini-tournament where regular season results matter little other than seedings. A sixth seed could win it all if it gains momentum at the right time. In fact, only one overall number one seed has captured the league’s championship in recent seasons: the 2011 LA Galaxy. When it comes to the MLS postseason, the calculus is simple, but you have to get in it to win it.
“To get to this point, obviously, the team has put in a lot, and it ends up where we are now: one game at home to secure our fate into the postseason,” said Leitch. “There was a lot that goes on in between that, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one game at our place which we feel confident about.”
The Earthquakes are expecting a sell-out this Sunday afternoon for their season-ender, and the atmosphere is expected to surpass any game since the stadium opened in 2015. This is the most important MLS game since the Quakes played in the playoffs back in 2012. The team knows it, the coaches know it, and the fans will be in full support.
“That simplifies it for us, and that’s the position we wanted to be in at the end of the year,” said Thompson. “It’s excited that we accomplished it, and it’s exciting that we are one win away from accomplishing our goals.”