Home sweet home. A refrain that has without a doubt crossed the minds of every player on the San Jose Earthquakes. After all, the team is a collective 9-2-5 in the Bay Area this season, earning 32 points in the process and bolstering its claim on the final postseason berth in the Western Conference.
Win in their season finale this Sunday at Avaya Stadium against the expansion Minnesota United, and the Quakes will compete in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since 2012. It would be a just reward for a squad that went through a coaching change midway through the season, and welcomed a slew of new players to the roster that have slowly, but surely, developed the chemistry needed to thrive in MLS.
“I said it at the beginning of the season, and I’ll say it now: This is the most talented locker room I have been a part of here with the Earthquakes, and every player knows it,” said fourth year midfielder Tommy Thompson. “We have the depth needed to take us to the playoffs, and, hopefully, deep into the playoffs.”
A lot of that depth has been brought in on the attacking side of the ball. Stalwart forward Chris Wondolowski is still the undisputed leader of the Quakes offense — he has scored double-digit goals for the past eight seasons, a league record — but he is not alone in getting it done, as the team has added a slew of international talents.
Marco Urena from Costa Rica and Danny Hoesen from Holland were the first to join the roster. Attacking midfielder Jahmir Hyka — the Albanian Messi — was the next aboard. Georgian forward Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili penned a Designated Player contract at the start of the summer. Suddenly it was not up to only Wondo to score goals for San Jose, and he experienced the growing chemistry developing within the group.
“It’s continuing to blossom,” said Wondolowski. “It’s been a good one. You have some quality guys up there that know how to move the ball and are very talented with the ball, so it’s a nice thing to have.”
Vako, especially, has transformed the offense for the Quakes. Playing primarily as a left-sided winger, but with the freedom to move laterally across the attacking third, the DP has earned 5 goals and 2 assists in only 12 appearances, seven of them starts. He shows no fear with the ball at his feet, and his productivity has few limits.
“He’s got goals and assists in him,” said head coach Chris Leitch. “That is why he’s on the field. It’s a good thing when you have one of your attacking players with the ability to both score and set up goals. He needs to continue that, which I know he will, he enjoys that part of the game. That is why he was brought in, to bolster our attack and get points for us.”
But it hasn’t been all about Vako on offense as the Quakes have managed to survive to the last weekend of the regular season with their postseason dreams alive. The defense has done just enough to keep games close at home, and goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell is quietly putting together a decent debut season as the team’s first choice between the posts. Still it is as the goalscorers go that the Quakes postseason fate will too, and they are looking more and more comfortable with one another with every game.
“Within the attacking unit, it takes a little time for them to gel,” said Leitch. “To understand from the wingers, do they stay all the way to the limit, all the way wide, do they come in vertically, how do the two forward play together. It’s not cut and dry, and it shouldn’t be cut and dry. I won’t be one thing every single time, but we are going to have different options to break the opposition’s defense down in different ways. It’s not the easiest thing to do, and it takes a few weeks of the guys playing with each other to get that consistency and knowledge of individual tendencies for things to come off.”
With Wondolowki and Hoesen up top, with Hyka and Vako on the wings, that formation has put together two very effective performances. Following a resilient 2-1 victory over the Portland Timbers at Avaya Stadium to close out September, the Earthquakes went on the road and earned an impressive 1-1 comeback draw against Western Conference leaders Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend. All three goals and assists have have come from the front four.
And now that attacking unit has one more responsibility this regular season -- beat Minnesota on Sunday. No need to watch the scoreboard, worrying about other results around MLS. Simply, the Earthquakes have one job: win and you’re in.
“Worry about ourselves and execute our game plan,” said Wondolowski. “Do that, and we have a great chance of getting all three points.”