The game is supposed to be easier when you have the lead, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and last night was no exception for the San Jose Earthquakes.
The Quakes were already 1-0 up at the time — an exceptional individual effort by Marco Urena in the waning moments of the first half saw to that — but the visiting Columbus Crew were making it exceptionally difficult for the hosts to find their way in the attacking third.
It was early in the second half, following a first half that saw the Crew have the run of play, and the adjustments the Quakes were making to get comfortable in the game were only just beginning to take effect. The sold-out Avaya Stadium crowd sensed that the a second goal was coming, especially with the team’s growing confidence evident for all to see.
And then, in the 56th minute, the breakthrough happened.
A throw-in deep in Columbus territory was quick taken by Shea Salinas, as he picked out Tommy Thompson making a dash towards the area. Throw-ins are set pieces — make not doubt about it — and Salinas’ awareness of the situation allowed him to take full advantage of a Crew defense that was slow to settle into its lines.
“Shea did a great job of being alert on the quick throw-in,” said Thompson. “That can be really dangerous for us, so he put me in a great spot, and I knew that if I got to the endline, Wondo is going to find a pocket in the box, so I took a couple guys on and saw him there, crossed it, and the next thing you know I am on the ground.”
The play took just seconds, but it was perfectly executed. Chris Wondolowski tapped in the close range cross from Thompson for his 130th all-time MLS goal and ninth of the season to double the Quakes lead. The Quakes captain immediately dashed towards Thompson in celebration, tackling him to the ground with a flying embrace.
“I have a soft spot for Tommy, so especially getting the assist from him, I’m a big fan of that,” said Wondolowski. “He didn’t know it was coming. It’s an inside joke here that you don’t want to be the first one to celebrate with me: it might be a punch or it might be a bear hug. I get a little excited.”
To say that Wondolowski gets passionate is an understatement. Since his rise to highest echelon of MLS goalscorers — he is currently ranked fourth on the all-time list — the 34-year old Designated Player and U.S. international has showed an intensity on the field that few others can match. Wondo is demanding both of himself and his teammates, but none would ever say that he doesn’t give his all for the team.
The assist to Wondolowski that sparked the unusual celebration was Thompson’s just the third of his career, all notched this season, after not collecting a single point in his first three seasons as the Earthquakes first Homegrown player. And while he hasn’t been at the center of any of Wondolowski’s fired up goal celebrations, he’s seen enough of them through the years to have also expected the flying greeting Saturday night.
"By now I should have known that he'd be doing that,” said Thompson. “It felt good, it was a great moment for the team and a great moment for Wondo and I."
Thompson’s accession as a formidable attacking player has not caught longtime observers by surprise. Rather, it has felt that such performances as the fourth year pro gave against Columbus should have been the norm in seasons past. The 21-year-old midfielder has made incredible strides this season, especially under new head coach Chris Leitch, and his assist to Wondolowski was exactly the kind of incisive play many have been expecting.
With his opportunities to play under former head coach Dominic Kinnear limited, Thompson never really found the rhythm that saw him sign his first professional contract as a teenager. But with Leitch and new general manager Jesse Fioranelli running the show, Thompson has been encouraged, almost directed, to make offense a much bigger part of his game.
“Jesse and Chris have given me the license to go forward and be brave and to take guys on,” said Thompson. “So I approach the game a little bit differently, and I think it has paid off so far."
The freedom to take on the heart of the Crew defense, the confidence to know his teammates have his back, the vision to see Wondo sprinting into space in front of the net: These attributes together were the foundation of the Earthquakes second goal of the evening, and they are the recipe for so many more to come from the creative midfielder.
So what is next for Thompson? In his current run, he finally scored his first MLS goal — earlier in July at Atlanta United — and he has come ever so close to adding to that tally. Late in Saturday’s game, Thompson teed up an effort from just inside the area that looked destined to be his second career goal, but it rocketed off the goal frame and back into the field of play.
“I thought it was going to hit the crossbar and go in, so I was disappointed to see it not cross the line,” said Thompson. “I am looking forward to that first Avaya goal one day.”
So are the Earthquakes faithful who give Thompson some of the biggest cheers whenever he steps on the field.