SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Earthquakes, a game away from determining their Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs future, were in dire need of a wake-up call.
It took a late soul-sucking goal from the visiting Seattle Sounders to do just that, reminding a few of San Jose’s players that Decision Day presented by AT&T permits no margin for error.
Win or go home is the motto from here on out.
Powered by his cryptic and philosophical tone, Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda, too, let his words be the alarm ringing in the ears within his locker room and to those keeping tabs from afar. In a press conference that would not be out of place as a TED talk, the Argentine pirouetted with his words before revealing what his team will need ahead of the crucial trip to take on the Portland Timbers next week in the season finale: top-down equilibrium.
“These are the moments when the team should react,” the 45-year-old said following his team’s 1-0 loss Sunday in the penultimate game of the regular season. “Generally, in soccer there are moments throughout the season – whether it’s the World Cup, Champions League, Liga MX, Argentine Superliga, MLS – where one should stand up and make a difference. In that sense, there has been a few teams who have stood up and made that difference. The rest of us have been alternating."
San Jose are in eighth place, out of the final playoff spot with two up for grabs, one point behind the team above them, FC Dallas. With Portland two points ahead of them, Sunday's game becomes a "six-pointer," although Dallas and even the Colorado Rapids also have a chance of clinching a spot. The pundits have already been giving their predictions on what is likely to take place:
Almeyda pointed out San Jose's turnaround this season, from worst in the league to battling for a postseason spot, remains an accomplishment in context.
"[The Quakes] came from a bad moment. We started with a very bad moment, and we started to grow. We started to grow because of our style of play: our way of playing, our way of training and through the effort of our players. And we reached a level of great soccer. In a game we had 43 shots. In today’s soccer, that’s rarely accomplished. In that game we scored two goals out of 43 shots. Then, the team started to fall," he explained.
September was not a good month for the Earthquakes, as they lost all five games played. Almeyda admitted the team dropping in the standings and falling below the playoff line altogether took its toll.
“The hardest thing is remaining on the line – not too happy or too sad,” he added. "A line. That’s life, and I see life reflected in soccer. We have to improve. We have to improve a lot. Now, I stick with the attitude of this team, which saw loss after loss last year, and obviously upon receiving loss after loss, anyone should feat repeating the same pattern. Today, that was not the attitude. It was an attitude with generosity, bravery, personality, a positive attitude. They played like men today. Do we have to keep improving, yes. Otherwise it’s not enough. If they score a goal, we have to score two."
Many would argue that the Quakes' praiseworthy turnaround campaign under one of the continent’s most-proven coaches will be short of greatness without a playoff appearance. But that’s not the way Almeyda measures his team’s success.
“We were just talking to the players, and told them that if on the first day of preseason someone would have brought us a contract that said that we were going to have a chance to make playoffs in the last game, we all would have signed that piece of paper,” Almeyda said. “This team has changed a lot, so I can’t just limit myself on making it or not making it. I limit myself on something much deeper. A team that had 20, 21 points last season and with 85 percent of the same players attempted to take the initiative and be competitive. They have been like this throughout the season.”
And Almeyda became philosophical on the purpose of what he and his team is doing.
“There’s a reality that some teams play better than us. Then there’s another reality that can’t be hidden which is the improvement of this team. One day a week, we train with youngsters who are 15, 16, 17, 18 years of age – something that had never been done before. Our purpose of being here is much deeper than [referees] taking back a goal or giving us a penalty.
“I’ve been in soccer for 30 years, so I understand a ton of stuff,” he stressed. “Now, the love that we walk in with each day over here is a lot more important than if we make the playoffs or not. Really, every member of San Jose and the players are experiencing that. From soccer, that is all I take with me.”