You can excuse San Jose Earthquakes fans for showing their exuberance this week. After all, coming off a year of “boring” soccer, the Quakes dazzled in their 2017 MLS season opener against Montreal and walked away with a dominating 1-0 victory.
It was a varsity versus JV exhibition in the eyes as most, as San Jose was the better team on both sides of the ball. The offense should have scored three or four more goals given the chances it created, while the defense deserved its clean sheet by limiting the Impact to nary a shot on goal.
“We want to have that killer instinct, both offensively and defensively, when we step on the field,” said Chris Wondolowski in a raucous post game locker room. Wondo recorded the assist on Anibal Godoy’s game winning goal.
But it may have been more of what the team captain and his fellow attackers did to help the defense that ensured the Quakes would start 2017 with three points. Employing a disruptive high press strategically throughout the game never allowed Montreal to safely develop possession moving forward, and they were forced into numerous turnovers.
“We were expecting them to press us, but we needed to be better on the ball, to be able to break lines when you’re being pressed,” said a very disappointed Impact head coach Mauro Biello. Montreal completed only 50% of its passes beyond the center line, and only 37% in the attacking third.
Along with Wondolowski, Earthquakes newcomer Marco Urena inflicted pressure on the Impact defenders like an unleashed doberman patrolling the great Avaya Stadium estate. The Costa Rican forward parlayed that pressure into a few offensive opportunities, and it is clear his scoring touch will come. Still, no one doubted his contributions to the 1-0 shutout.
“What you saw tonight was the guy I saw play against Panama and Trinidad in the World Cup qualifiers,” said head coach Dominic Kinnear. “His energy in harassing their defenders was a big plus for us tonight.”
The pressure didn’t stop beyond the Quakes front line, as midfielders Godoy and Tommy Thompson were clinical in their efforts to stymie the Impact. Add in the MLS Team of the Week debuts from rookie Nick Lima and Bundesliga veteran Florian Jungwirth on the back line, and San Jose recorded the best defensive performance in the league in week one.
The Lima Locomotive first fired up in the preseason, when the Quakes Homegrown Player turned heads with his dazzling performances at right back, and the hype heightened with a goal-line clearance at Reno 1868 FC and a shutdown effort against Sacramento Republic FC in the team’s regular season warm-ups. But it was the arrival of Jungwirth from Darmstadt that transformed the Quakes defense, and the man known as Flo put MLS on notice in week one that San Jose will be stingy this season.
“Flo did a great job tonight,” said Wondolowski. “He reads the game so well and is able to sniff out passes. He makes it look easy when it is not an easy thing to do against some talented guys. He reads the game very well, and organizes and communicates really well, which is something we need.”
The Impact recorded four shots total in the loss, and goalkeeper David Bingham did not need to make a single save. According to the statistics, Montreal’s “expected goals” in the match was a paltry 0.13 — nearly a third of the second worst offensive performance of the week — while San Jose’s was 1.5, a clear demonstration of the Earthquakes’ dominance and the effect of a total team effort.
“This is exactly what we were hoping for when we brought Jesse (Fioranelli) in as our general manager,” said team president Dave Kaval, admiring the new look. “A team with an attacking identity that is fun to watch, that’s exciting, with players that have courage and are willing to take chances all over the field. I think you saw that in the first half, and I think you will see a lot more of that this season.”
Sure, it’s early days in the 2017 season, but that’s no reason not to go all-in to hyperbolic heights of praise and expectations. Who knows if the rest of MLS will ever score on the Earthquakes. The numbers don’t lie: If the Quakes play the rest of the season like they did on opening weekend against the Impact, San Jose will finish the year with some new additions to their trophy cabinet.