SAN JOSE, Calif. — When the San Jose Earthquakes write the history of their 2011 season, the US Open Cup might, for the first time in years, be seen as something more than a mere footnote.
The Quakes were coming off three consecutive MLS defeats and were in desperate need of a win when they visited Portland three weeks ago in their first US Open qualifying match. Moments from going into penalty kicks, defender Ike Opara headed home a dramatic 120th-minute goal.
Opara’s tally not only gave San Jose a 1-0 victory over the Timbers — Portland’s only home loss in all competitions — but it put the Quakes on the brink of moving into the tournament’s full field for the first time since being reborn in 2008.
Since the win in Portland, the Quakes are 2-0-1 in league play, having moved out of the Western Conference cellar and acquired a sudden new appreciation for the country’s oldest annual team tournament. San Jose host Chicago on Tuesday night (10:30 pm ET, listen live at sjearthquakes.com) in a win-and-you’re-in qualifying match that could earn them one of eight spots (out of 40 berths) reserved for MLS sides.
“We really needed that win against Portland to get our season rolling,” Quakes star Chris Wondolowski said. “I think it has really jump-started our second [act] of the season. It took that for the realization that these are serious games and we need them.”
Prior to the win in Portland, the Quakes had three swings at US Open Cup qualifying matches and came up empty each time. The tournament seemed at times more like a burden than an opportunity for a San Jose team that didn’t exactly seem heartbroken at their defeats.
Last season in a qualifier against Real Salt Lake, for example, coach Frank Yallop started midfielders Javier Robles and Ramón Sánchez — two players who were so seldom used that they combined for just 144 minutes of MLS play before being released midseason.
Yallop won’t go that route on Tuesday.
“We’re not going in to give guys games and change the lineup because I want to get 90 minutes for some guys, or all that stuff,” Yallop said “We’re putting [out] a lineup to win the match. I think that the players feel that.”
Eight MLS teams have claimed the Cup since the league’s inception — the Fire have won it four times — but San Jose are not one of them, a fact Yallop hopes to change. He helmed a Galaxy team that lost to Chicago in the 2006 US Open Cup final.
“It’s a competition that I’ve never won, so I’d like to win a trophy, if we can,” Yallop said. “Obviously, it’s a long, long way from here. But we’re going into this game trying to win it.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes