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The 2012 San Jose Earthquakes are biggest underdog success in MLS history

Goonies never say die!

San Jose Earthquakes Steven Lenhart (24) fights for the ball against Los Angeles Galaxy’s Todd Dunivant (2)in the first half at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, October 21, 2012. (Josie Lepe/Staff) Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

It’s underdog week at SB Nation, and the obvious call when thinking about underdogs for the San Jose Earthquakes is the Supporters’ Shield-winning 2012 squad. I would argue they are the biggest underdog success story in MLS history.

The Quakes entered 2012 with few expectations, aside from the perpetual hope of the fanbase, after posting a disappointing 8W-12L-14D record in 2011, finishing 11 points out of the final playoff place.

Frank Yallop returned as manager, and the roster was largely unchanged — Sercan Guvenisik and Tressor Moreno were disappointing additions, while Mehdi Ballouchy only played six regular-season games after being traded to San Jose. Only Victor Bernardez was a big-time addition who slotted straight into the starting XI.

So just one major change, the same manager, how did 2012 go? It was like night and day.

First off, the forwards created a terrific three-headed hydra. Chris Wondolowski had his best season as a professional, tying a then-MLS record of 27 goals in a regular season, winning the MLS MVP that season. That Wondo, himself a huge underdog who came good, was the league’s MVP and the best player on the team was rather emblematic for the season.

Meanwhile, Alan Gordon chipped in with 13 goals (his career high in a season) and seven assists, while Steven Lenhart scored 10 goals, also his career high. For three forwards to all notch their best seasons at the same time is pretty incredible!

Beyond that, Gordon and Lenhart gave the Quakes a personality, alternating between goofy surf guys, maniacs on the field against opponents and doing all the big and little things to throw opponents off their games. They were the “Bash Brothers” but their alternating laser focus and relaxed approach set the tone for the team.

Beyond that, Lenhart coined the nickname that fueled the Earthquakes in 2012, repeating the “Goonies never say die!” line from the 1985 cult classic movie “The Goonies.” Lenhart’s utterance was one part silly nonsense after a dramatic result in the California Clasico, one part motivational tactic, reimagining the Earthquakes as a rag-tag team of misfits who come together to stun the bad guys (the rest of MLS).

Beyond the forward line, there was quality apparent elsewhere on the field. The defense was sneaky-good, with fullbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour having enhanced their reputations substantially after leaving San Jose, while Jason Hernandez and Victor Bernardez proved to be the stout duo in the middle that kept opponents off their game. The experienced Jon Busch put in another fine season in goal. Rafael Baca was at the top of his game in MLS terms in the midfield, with Sam Cronin and at times Shea Salinas pitching in in the middle of the park. Marvin Chavez, Khari Stephenson and Simon Dawkins contributed in attack, too.

Two main components led to the Supporters’ Shield campaign for San Jose: They scored 72 goals in 34 games, way more than the rest of the league that year, the next-closest team managing just 59; and they had a knack for dramatic results, hence the “Goonies” nickname that stuck.

Here’s a highlights video of over eight-and-a-half minutes of all of San Jose’s goals in 2012:

10 of their 19 wins were by one goal, and while many of the elements of that magical season no longer exist in San Jose, they’ve maintained a knack for late results up to the present, as recently as the season opener this year, when they came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with a last kick equalizer. They may not come at the same rate as they did in the Goonies era, but there’s a sense of belief on the Earthquakes that they can pull out a win or a draw at any time until the final whistle, and that sense of belief is powerful stuff.

But while the Quakes held their nerve to capture the Supporters’ Shield, beating out the heavily favored Sporting Kansas City to take the regular-season prize by three points, the playoffs proved to be San Jose’s undoing.

While the Quakes had the better of the hated LA Galaxy during the regular season, the Galaxy famously began their 2012 season in putrid form, appearing to have a terrible MLS Cup hangover and at risk of missing the playoffs altogether. They made it in the end, but seeded fourth of five teams in the Western Conference, they went into a one-game playoff against the Vancouver Whitecaps to open the postseason. The Galaxy had to come back, but they won 2-1, setting up a California Clasico in the next round against the Quakes.

Victor Bernardez hit a stoppage-time free kick winner in the first leg, with Omar Gonzalez famously jumping over the wormburner, and with the return leg at Buck Shaw Stadium it looked like the Quakes were in fantastic shape, with a 1-0 lead coming home. But the Galaxy turned up for the second leg, taking a 3-1 aggregate lead before halftime, with Gordon only able to manage a late consolation goal to make it 3-2. The MLS Cup dream was officially dead.

Any team that wins the Supporters’ Shield but falters in the playoffs has to contend with those who devalue the Shield, as well as the natural disappointment that they aren’t the ones holding the trophy when the entire season is over. Maintaining excellence over a 34-game season is more impressive than getting hot in the playoffs, frankly. To me, all trophies are important, but the sheer length of the Shield means it merits more recognition than it gets.

Why was this the biggest underdog success in MLS history? I started by telling you how bad the 2011 season was for the Quakes leading into 2012. The success of the Shield in 2012 was a shock — this may have been a good team, but they still played above their collective level for an entire season, something literally nobody believed they could muster. Beyond that, it took the Earthquakes five more years to reach the playoffs again, much less contend for another Supporters’ Shield. They’ve been to the playoffs just once since 2012, and in that single game lost 5-0.

You could argue the Quakes’ magical year in 2012, when they changed almost nothing from the previous unsuccessful season, has haunted them in the meantime. The club has become far more active in terms of changing managers, after Yallop was fired in the summer of 2013. The Quakes have used seven head coaches since then, albeit some interim. John Doyle stayed on as GM until 2016, long after he seemed to demonstrate the MLS market had passed him by. And while turnover for the sake of turnover is not constructive, either, only with the arrival of Matias Almeyda has the Quakes’ approach in terms of building a roster seemed to really change from the bog standard of building a strong core of players from the draft and in trades in MLS, while signing a few players from abroad at favorable prices.

Time will tell if Almeyda and current GM Jesse Fioranelli’s approach will pay off, of course, but the Earthquakes firmly remain underdogs in the MLS landscape. Whether they can emerge from that label to be legit contenders again, or to even win elusive silverware once more, remains to be seen. But the 2012 Earthquakes season was the biggest underdog success story to date in MLS history.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.