In some ways, this might not seem like a big deal. The San Jose Earthquakes made the playoffs in a league where over half the teams do, and are only assured of one game (as heavy underdogs) in the wildcard. Yet this single playoff berth could not be more meaningful to the club and its supporters.
It's hard to think of a fanbase more deserving. Not only do their roots stretch back over four decades, but they have explicitly grounded themselves in loyalty to the team regardless of results on the field. When their great rivals to the south have a rare down year (such as this one), their stadium in Carson is barely half full when it hosts a California Clasico. But even when the Quakes are at their most wretched, they pack MLB-sized crowds into Stanford Stadium on a yearly basis. And they haven't failed to sell out an MLS game in three years, regardless of place in the standings. The San Jose Ultras, insane and unreasonable not just by reputation but by purpose, sang in full voice throughout this dismal summer that was punctuated by humiliating blowouts.
While the Front Office might have been tempted d to market itself as the "Bay Area" team, they've always rejected it in favor of explicitly embracing the San Jose-ness of the club. Anyone aiming to create a new club from whole cloth would of course want its fanbase to be large, but what they would kill for is the sort of perseverance in the face of adversity that Quakes fans demonstrate.
And make no mistake, this fanbase has been tested. While all of the original MLS sides had to contend with a fledgling position in the American sports landscape and minimal media attention, none of them received the death blow that San Jose did in 2006 when the franchise, despite its deep roots in the area and enviable run of success from 2001-2005, moved to Houston. Perhaps illustrating how misguided (and, in my opinion, disrespectful) that decision was, San Jose fans rallied together with former player John Doyle to bring back the franchise just a few years later in 2008. The competitive record from 2008-2016 has been dreadful, with just two playoff appearances, and more than a few train wreck seasons. One of those playoff appearances, by the way, was in a year where 6 of the 8 Western Conference teams made the playoffs. It wasn't just poor on-field play, but a constant slew of baffling off-field decisions, including some that seemed to spit in the face of the fanbase, such as the now-infamous Beitashour and Morrow trades. Although this is no longer the case, criticisms of the club as "cheap" through the early years of the reboot were not misplaced. And with the exception of 2012, the team was also never accused of playing fun-to-watch soccer, making the poor results even harder to bear.
This year, the project was full of turmoil. A huge injection of TAM dollars, combined with a pedigreed new European GM, and a roster that had just 15 players under contract at the beginning of the year saw to that. Add in a controversial mid-season coaching change that divided the locker room (and that I still don't feel great about) and the turmoil threatened to drown out all positive vibes.
But there were bright spots more brilliant than anything in the last few years. The club not only managed to defeat a first-division side in the US Open Cup for the first time in its history, they made a run to the semi-finals that ended only after 120 minutes of action and penalty kicks on the road in a difficult stadium. The new players were exciting and technically gifted beyond the level I've ever seen in San Jose before. And a few of them, particularly Flo Jungwirth, became quick fan favorites for the personality that went along with their play. Once Leitch took over, the playing style also changed, and occasionally led to matches that were genuinely pleasing on the eye.
Despite truly abominable, morale-shattering road results, somehow the team found itself in a position to make an improbable stretch run.Just two weeks ago, Fivethirtyeight gave the Quakes less than a 1 and 4 chance of making the playoffs, but somehow the boys in black and blue ground out the results they needed, aided by a historic collapse occurring in Frisco, Texas. On the very last day, they gave up a wunderstrike and a soft set piece goal, but rallied back both times, recapturing some of that 2012 "Goonies" magic en route to a stoppage time clincher that shattered the record on the stadium's seismograph.
I started going to games as a kid when the club was known as the Clash in the 90s. I remember as a middle schooler sitting on the crappy bleachers in Spartan Stadium to watch the likes of Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario lighting it up from 2001-2003, or standing just beside the Casbah (because I was a bit too young for them) in order to get as close to Joe Cannon as I could. I remember the still-yet-to-be-matched vibe of the crowd at Buck Shaw. I remember Wondo's purple patch of a 2012 season, with the insane run of late goals that started to feel inevitable. I remember the highlight-reel moments in Avaya's young history, such as Dawkins's epic shorthanded goal against TFC or Quincy's breathtaking lob. And not one of those things compares to the pride and relief I felt when Marco Ureña's deflected shot hit the back of the net.
What happens from here almost doesn't matter. I don't think any reasonable Quakes fan thinks we're MLS Cup contenders. The monkey has already been removed from our backs, the ignominious feat of missing the playoffs five years in a row was avoided, and the beaten-down confidence of the players and the staff finally has a tangible reason to hope going into an offseason that will be essential in charting out the future course of the franchise. Players don't want to play where there is a losing culture, but San Jose has an opportunity now to turn the page. To me, that's what matters: not whether or not they beat Vancouver tonight, but whether or not they use this momentum to build a foundation of success that will carry the club beyond this miserable period.
For that opportunity, I'm thankful. For the possibility of (psychological) peace in our time.