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San Jose Earthquakes gave ‘last drop of sweat’ in taking Sporting KC to brink

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Quakes exit playoffs disappointed, but pleased with their effort.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Earthquakes’ final game of 2020 was everything you’ve come to expect from their games.

In the playoffs against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday, San Jose went down early, started slow and made the same mistake to concede two separate times — but also fought back, equalized and took the lead, and then came back at the death to equalize and force extra time, before falling in a penalty shootout.

Energy. Fight. Mistakes, yes, but stellar play to make up for them and as always, a never say die attitude. It was all on display.

After the 3-3 draw that was decided by a 3-0 shootout, the Earthquakes were obviously disappointed with the result but also rather philosophical and upbeat in the immediate aftermath.

“What I told the players, what I feel, we gave our last drop of sweat to the last second,” Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda told reporters in the postgame press conference via interpreter. “It was a positive year. We were in two tournaments and in both of those tournaments, we competed. In moments, it looked like San Jose was dead, and they came back, and today in the game against the first-place team in the conference, throughout 120 minutes, we played an excellent match. Football has these things, in penalties. Sometimes it plays in your favor, sometimes against you, because of qualities from the opponent — in this case, their goalkeeper.”

Shea Salinas admitted he was fighting his emotions but the veteran thought it was a great game.

“It was a classic, it was intense. It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Almeyda paid tribute to both his players and Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia, who made five saves during the match and then three consecutive stops in the shootout to fire the home side to victory on the day.

“I can’t be any more grateful for them. I think the best player on the field was their goalkeeper, not counting the penalties. And when the goalkeeper is the standout player it’s because the team had many good chances, like we had,” he said.

San Jose trailed just four minutes in the game after allowing a goal off Sporting’s first corner kick. They pulled themselves together, however, and held a 2-1 lead at halftime, Salinas admitting, “When we were up 2-1, honestly I thought we were going to win the game 4-1.”

But Sporting found a quick equalizer early in the second half, again off a corner kick. After Gianluca Busio looked to have won the game for Kansas City in stoppage time, Chris Wondolowski scored the vital equalizer at the death to push the game to extra time.

“It was wild. For me, it was an extremely emotional game, just not knowing how many more of these opportunities I’m going to have,” Salinas, who was a surprise starter, said. “So to be tied 2-2 when I was subbed off, I was excited for Cade [Cowell] because I know he can make a difference but it was also really difficult because I now didn’t have control. It was emotional. But for us to fight back and the cross from Cristian [Espinoza] and the goal from Wondo there at the end, it was just insane. My heart still hurts a little bit, from the game, but it was an awesome experience.”

One reason everyone from the Earthquakes who spoke after the game was relatively upbeat was because the resilience they showed on Sunday was something they demonstrated in games repeatedly and across the season overall, at one point going eight games winless before rallying to clinch their first playoff berth since 2017 and first in the Almeyda era.

“We have so much character, this team,” said Salinas. “Just the season we’ve had, what we’ve gone through. And then this game, it kind of encompassed a lot of what happened this season...We grew a lot as players, I think individually each player is better now than at the beginning of season, and I also think we’re better men. We support each other, we encourage each other. So we’ve developed something more than becoming better soccer players, which has been cool.”

For Almeyda, the respect with his players was mutual.

“I thank the players for both the years I’ve had with them, and I thank them for this difficult year that was hard for everyone, because I feel I’ve gotten the best out of all of them, and they’ve made me become a better coach,” he said.

And now, the offseason begins with plenty of questions. The longest-tenured players, Salinas and Wondolowski, are out of contract and unsure of their futures, while Almeyda hinted he may or may not be back next year, telling reporters in Spanish, “I need to take three, four days off to see where I want to go, know what I want to do with my future.”

The questions for the future begin. But for a moment, the disappointed Earthquakes consoled themselves with a job well done, against the odds, in 2020, and that’s certainly something to celebrate.

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