History was made in San Jose last night, as the Earthquakes, for the first time ever, defeated a fellow MLS team in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Behind goals from Shea Salinas and Danny Hoesen, the Quakes defeated the Seattle Sounders 2-1 in front of 13,442 at Avaya Stadium to advance from the tournament’s Round of 16 and into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2012.
It was newly installed head coach Chris Leitch’s first victory in charge of the Earthquakes since taking over for the fired Dominic Kinnear on Sunday, and he appreciated the double distinction of the result. Furthermore, the former player enjoyed the familiarity of occasion, even if it was a bit nerve-racking at times.
“There were some exciting moments in there,” said Leitch, “but it was less nervous though, because, honestly, this is a good group and it’s a good staff, and it’s a damn good team. When you have those things, you become less nervous for sure. It’s the first game, and I hadn’t seen the bright lights on that field that close for a while, so you get a good energy I’d say.”
Leitch was bombarded with questions before the game and after the game about the tactical strategy he is going to employ as the Earthquakes new head coach, only the ninth head coach in the franchise’s history, but he politely deflected those queries as effectively as he stopped opposing forwards in his years as a defender. Instead, his message to the team has focused on the basics. He wants this team to expect to win when they step on the field, no matter who is in the Starting XI.
“It’s a chance to win a trophy for the club, and we put together a strong line-up,” said Leitch. “I like this group, and it doesn’t mean just eleven guys, it’s a well balanced roster. The mentality in this team is fantastic, even if you haven’t been playing the last four or five games, when your name is called, you are going to go up, you’re going to be supported, and you are going in expected to do the job. That’s what I love about this group.”
General manager Jesse Fioranelli, in explaining why he replaced Kinnear with Leitch, even with the team above the red line in the MLS Cup playoffs chase and showing respectably in the U.S. Open Cup, stated he wanted the team to impose its will on opponents. Leitch feels his guys did just that against Seattle.
“For big stretches of it, yes, I was happy with that,” said Leitch. “I think we can do it even more. Being comfortable on the ball and being patient. In the first half, we did impose ourselves for sure, and we can do it for even longer stretches than we did in the second half. At times, there was some really, really, really good stuff in there.”
Just like in the previous round of the tournament, a 2-0 win over the San Francisco Deltas, the Quakes got off to a great start against the Sounders. Salinas, who has been working himself back to fitness after an injury lay-off, capitalized on a rebound following a corner kick and staked the hosts to a 1-0 lead in the sixth minute. San Jose fortunes looked even brighter in the 35th minute when Seattle midfielder Francisco Narbon was shown a straight red card for a dangerous tackle on Jackson Yueill. It was the kind of momentum that Letich hoped would prompt a killer instinct from his team.
“We started pretty darn well,” said Leitch. “We had control of the game, and we were moving the ball pretty sharply. You go up a goal, up a man, you’d like to bury that game a little bit better, but that being said, the effort all the way around was very good.”
The one danger when playing a team depleted to ten men is set pieces, and at the start of the second half, Salinas gifted Seattle a free kick just outside the penalty area. Up stepped Aaron Kovar, who played his college soccer at Stanford and is a Homegrown Player signing with the Sounders, and he nailed a 25-yarder past Andrew Tarbell to level the score at 1-1. A nervous Avaya Stadium crowd implored the team to respond, but the visitors kept organized in the back and limited the Quakes to very few scoring opportunities.
With the game nearing its last quarter hour, and Leitch hoping to avoid a potential overtime and penalty kicks conclusion to the evening, the sideline rookie looked to his bench. His attackers on the field were starting to lag, especially midfielder Jahmir Hyka, who failed to bury a golden scoring chance minutes earlier, and Hoesen was warmed up and ready to go. The Dutch Delight was summoned to replace the Albanian Messi.
“Danny coming on, being fresh, and especially given his recent run of form was very enticing,” said Leitch. “I was scared that the game would go into overtime, and we would overuse Danny a little bit ahead of Saturday, but that literally was the message to Danny when he came over was ‘You’re going to get a chance, finish the game off,’ and he did it like a cold-blooded forward. He’s enjoying a good run right now. We can hopefully have him continue that on Saturday.”
For his part, Hoesen appreciated the vote of confidence he received from Leitch ahead of his entrance into the game, and when the moment came in the 84th minute, the striker did the job he was asked to do. Following a crafty give-and-go with Yueill, Hoesen danced through the Seattle defense and slotted home from close range to give the Quakes a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
"Yeah, I'm feeling good,” said Hoesen. “I always watch my games back after the game, and I just thought I need to be more direct towards the goal. I'm feeling confident at the moment. I have the feeling that I can be dangerous every game and try and help the team. It's starting to show now more than in the beginning and I'm happy with that."
The victory against Seattle elevated the Quakes all-time U.S. Open Cup record against first division foes to 1-7-3 (0-3 PK), and it pushed them one step closer to their first title of any kind since capturing the Supporters’ Shield in 2012. It was a welcome result for players and fans, as San Jose has too often in the past disappointed in the tournament. Three more wins, and the Earthquakes get the trophy and a bid to the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.
“I would definitely say we are not there yet,” said Leitch. “If it stops at the quarters or it stops at the semis, we are going to be disappointed, so we still have a lot in front of us in that regard. But it’s good to advance in the tournament, no matter who you are playing against or who they put out there. It gives us a chance to win a trophy, and my experience both playing and being with the group is that players like to win trophies. And I know this club would enjoy winning another trophy, so I’m looking forward to making that run. I know it’s tough, because you are also playing in a very competitive MLS league, but that is sometime what you have to go through if you want to win a title.”
The Quakes next opponent in the Open Cup will be a familiar one; it is the same opponent they will face in this Saturday’s California Clasico at Stanford Stadium. The LA Galaxy defeated Sacramento Republic FC 2-0 earlier the same evening, setting up a quarterfinal clash on Monday, July 10, at Avaya Stadium. Given that the rivalry between the clubs can be found at any level of competition, the Galaxy and head coach Curt Onalfo are thrilled to pencil in another trip to San Jose on their calendar.
“I think it’s great,” said Onalfo. “First of all, we don’t have to go up to Seattle and play on that terrible Starfire field. So, we’ll get to play in a great stadium with a grass field. We will have a week of recovery and rest and training, so we look forward to it. It’s be a great opportunity to get a good game in.”
An MLS Cali Clasico on July 1, with a crowd-pleasing postgame fireworks in the air, and an Open Cup Cali Clasico on July 10, with a tournament semifinal berth on the line: There’s never been a better time to Beat LA.