By Ridge Mahoney
A comeback 3-2 Colorado win over Vancouver Saturday afternoon clarified the Quakes’ task for Sunday night:
Beat L.A. at StubHub Center, or forget about the league until the New Year.
San Jose (13-11-8, 47 points) is four points out of the last playoff spot. It is chasing Seattle, the Galaxy and Colorado, which are in a three-way tie for third with 51 points. Because of tiebreakers, even a tie ends its playoff chances.
If San Jose doesn’t beat the Galaxy the most points it can finish with is 51, and without a victory Sunday night it loses the first tiebreaker, most wins, against the Sounders and Galaxy even if it beats FC Dallas in its season finale next weekend. It could tie Colorado in points and wins but is 12 goals behind in the second tiebreaker, goals scored.
So desperate is the Quakes’ situation that the foe is relatively inconsequential, yet the game does pair up bitter rivals with long histories of antagonism, and prone to great entertainment. Four of the last five regular-season meetings have ended up 4-3, 3-2, or 2-2. On its way to last year’s MLS Cup crown the Galaxy beat San Jose, 3-2, on aggregate in the conference semifinals.
“We’re aware of how good they are, we’ve played them many times,” said interim head coach Mark Watson of 53 previous meetings in league, playoffs, and U.S. Open Cup. “We know their team very well, we know their guys. They have some of the top players in the league and we know that is we’re not very disciplined and stick to our tasks for 90 minutes, we’re not going to get a result. It’s a big challenge for us but the guys are really excited about it.”
Of course, it’s a great credit to Watson, who replaced Frank Yallop June 7, and his players they are worthy of a mention in the postseason hunt at all. When Yallop and management decided to part ways, the Quakes were 3-6-6, and that shocking drop from the Supporters-Shield winning team of 2012 that had won 19 games defied belief.
Injuries to several attackers depleted the offense and in many games lack of cohesion and sustained effort led to costly breakdowns at both ends of the field. MVP and Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, who tied the league record with 27 goals last year, couldn’t seem to find the net as his powerful frontrunners, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, battled injuries and suspensions.
“We never, ever really got going,” says Watson of three frustrating months prior to Yallop’s departure. “This team still had expectations of being a top team and when you have a record of three or four games under .500, you start questioning that.”
There’s no question the Quakes are still a good team. Since the change their record is a remarkable 10-5-2. “If you’re looking for what turned the season around I think it’s just the players realizing we were in a hole and they just came to work every day,” Watson says. “We fixed a few things that we weren’t doing particularly well at the time. It’s down to them, plain old hard work and applying themselves in training to get us back on the right foot.”
The perspective that Watson tightened up the defense at the expense of attack isn’t borne out by the numbers. While winning just three of its first 15 league games, the Quakes scored 13 goals, allowed 23, and posted just one shutout. During that 10-5-2 run it has scored 20 goals while conceding 18, and seven of those wins have been shutouts.
The defense has been particularly good recently. Since being thumped, 3-0, by the Galaxy Aug. 31, the Quakes have allowed just one goal while winning four games and tying once.
“If you concede too many goals you’re not going to give yourself a chance to win games,” says Watson, a former defender who played for his native Canada as well as three MLS teams. “We definitely worked on the defensive side and just repetition: what we want to do when we have the ball. How we organize, how we press the ball, and what we would do in different situations. We just kept going over and over on it and eventually when you repeat things, it becomes what you do. That definitely helped.
“We worked on moving the ball a little bit better. We like to have a nice balance between playing and playing off our target guys, who do a great job holding the ball up for us, and being a little more clinical in the final third.”
Watson and general manager John Doyle also worked on personnel. English defender Jordon Stewart and U.S. international centerback Clarence Goodson were acquired in midseason. Watson mentored Trinidad & Tobago speedster Cordell Cato, whose dazzling surges up the flanks were often bracketed by fruitless dribbles and aimless passes. And Watson turned to the forward partners for Wondolowski who had combined for 23 goals last year.
Lenhart got his first goal of the season in Watson’s debut as head coach June 15, a 2-1 victory at Colorado that was also San Jose’s first road win. Gordon tallied his first goal two weeks later, in an incredible 3-2 comeback win over the Galaxy that took the team and fans back to 2012, when it scored nine goals in stoppage time.
Shea Salinas and Gordon scored in the 92nd and 93rd minutes, respectively, with the Quakes down a man. More than 50,000 fans on hand at Stanford Stadium for the annual Cali Clasico fireworks game celebrated yet another amazing vanquish of the archrival
“They were probably on top of us for most of the game, and to come back in that situation, where you’re down a man and down a goal in injury time, kind of reaffirms
that spirit, that character, and that fight to the end of the game that we have,” recalls Watson. “It’s still there.
“It helped with confidence but more with a belief in terms of [knowing] we still have a lot of these great qualities. It wasn’t the only win that got us there but it certainly helped.”
For Watson, that first road win at Colorado and a 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake a month ago stand out. “Our win in Colorado was our first away win of the season. That was a big step. We knew if we had any chance of the playoffs we had to start defending better and getting results on the road,” he says.
“I think also winning in Salt Lake. We kept a very good Salt Lake team at bay and also did well going forward. We moved the ball really well at times and scored two great goals. Maybe those two games were the more significant ones.”
On the significance meter, Sunday night at StubHub pins the needle.