Never sleep on an underdog. That is advise that all favorites heed when it comes to the playoffs. No matter the sport: In an elimination situation, anything can happen.
On Wednesday, the San Jose Earthquakes will take on the Vancouver Whitecaps in the knockout round of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. The game is at BC Place in Vancouver, and the Quakes, the only team in the MLS postseason with a losing record, are heavy underdogs.
But, the records go out the window when it comes to one-game, winner-takes-all matches. The Whitecaps will be aiming to earn their first ever MLS playoffs win, while the Earthquakes will look to make their first return to the postseason in five years last past one game.
“You play to win. You play for the playoffs. You play to win championships,” said Chris Wondolowski. “It’s not how you get to the dance; it’s what you do at the dance. It’s a new season -- doesn’t matter the -21 goal differential -- that means absolutely nothing come Wednesday. That’s all we are looking forward to right now.”
Indeed, the Quakes did not exactly storm into the postseason off of a stellar regular season record. Especially on the road, San Jose has been brutal at times. But just over a week ago, in the team’s penultimate game of the season, the Quakes went to Vancouver and fashioned a very inspiring come-from-behind draw.
The one point earned at BC Place was the difference in the Earthquakes finishing in sixth place in the West — the last playoffs spot — and eighth. The dramatic stoppage time goal to beat Minnesota sealed the deal on postseason qualification, but it was that draw against the Whitecaps that might be the defining moment of the season.
“We know they are good team, and we had that battle with them, but we feel we can go up there and get a win,” said Wondolowski. “We do need to worry about ourselves more than our opponents right now. When we can take care of our business, things tend to fall into place. That’s our focus right now. We are excited about it.”
The rest of the team is also focused and prepared. For many of the newcomers to the Earthquakes and MLS, the postseason will be a bit of a novelty. However, that is not the case for San Jose’s Defender of the Year Florian Jungwirth, who knows the playoffs are about getting hot at the right time.
“The last three years have shown that,” said Jungwirth. “Last year Seattle did it, and before that Portland did it. Obviously, first, we are happy that we are part of the playoffs. That was always the goal. Last week we had a good match in Vancouver, so why shouldn’t we repeat it again.”
Facing Vancouver for the second time in as many weeks does lessen the burden on the coaching staff to prep the players for the Whitecaps particular style of play — defend and counter — but they will be busy working on adjustments to the team’s approach to Wednesday night’s game.
“Yes, playing a team that we are pretty familiar with after facing them not too long ago gives us a little bit of an inside look into what they do and what we can do against it,” said head coach Chris Leitch. “But the reverse can be said for them about us. We have to make our adjustments, and we know Vancouver will make their adjustments. We will go out with the right mindset and the confidence that we can handle the pressure and give everything we’ve got.”
The Quakes have not been under any more pressure this season than they were Sunday afternoon against Minnesota United. With their postseason qualification destiny in their own hands, the Earthquakes still had to put in a near flawless performance to beat the expansion side. That is took to the 93rd minute is somewhat concerning, but the team’s Never Say Die mentality powered them through to the winning goal. They’ll need that momentum even more if they are to survive Vancouver.
“To be honest, this is the best locker room I’ve been in,” said forward Danny Hoesen. “Not only good players, but also great people. We always stick together, we always stay positive, and if you keep believing and stay together, anything is possible.”
“We have a lot of experience in the locker room,” added fellow forward Marco Urena, “so we will be really focused for Vancouver.”
“It’s such a cliche, but we’ve been saying it all throughout the year: You don’t want to be playing your best at the beginning of the season; you want to be playing your best at the end,” said Wondolowski. “We still have a few things we need to work on, but I feel that we are playing at our best. I don’t know how Vancouver feels, but I hope they are fearing us because I have faith in our guys.”