Quick pop quiz: Which MLS team currently has the longest unbeaten streak? The Supporters’ Shield-leading New England Revolution? Maybe it's Western Conference powerhouses Sporting Kansas City or Seattle Sounders?
The San Jose Earthquakes have quietly pieced together an impressive and league-best seven-match unbeaten run heading into Friday night's showdown with Vancouver Whitecaps FC at PayPal Park (10:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
The 11 points (two wins, five draws) the Quakes have accrued during this stretch have catapulted them to within two points of the playoff line in the West.
“We have to keep growing as a team. We need to keep continuing the good things and fixing our mistakes,” head coach Matias Almeyda said. “There is still a lot ahead of us. Sixteen matches are left and anyone who thinks they've achieved or finished something is mistaken. I am all about being in the present and trying not to think too far ahead. We need to think about the tough opponent we will be facing, which is Vancouver Whitecaps FC. They have been improving their game and they have a great coach and roster. This will not be an easy match. Our focus is on Vancouver.”
A Friday night win would put San Jose into a playoff position, albeit temporarily, ahead of the rest of Week 19’s slate. Center back Oswaldo Alanis said reaching the MLS Cup Playoffs is a clear goal, though the veteran stressed it’s important not to look too far ahead.
“Fortunately, we are getting better results and improving our game, which is the most important thing because that will give you the best results,” Alanis said. “It's in our thoughts and it gives you more confidence and makes you more motivated to fight and get in and earn the points to move up in the standings and that is important. We are still focused on going game by game and improving.”
A big part of the Quakes’ success has been Cade Cowell establishing himself as a regular starter, with the 17-year-old attacker already doubling up his minutes-played total from 2020. He’s got four goals and four assists, plus earned a spot in the 2021 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target on August 25.
“I would say I'm doing well, but I'm not satisfied,” Cowell said. “I feel I could do a lot more; have more goals, have more assists, have better stats. But I'm not doing bad also. I'm at a medium level. I'm hoping to finish the season a lot better.”
Other key pieces have been winger Cristian Espinoza and center back Nathan, who both earned Week 18 starting spots in the Team of the Week presented by Audi. They were key in last Sunday's 2-1 home win over LAFC. San Jose are also hoping that forward Jeremy Ebobisse, a marquee Secondary Transfer Window addition (trade from Portland), gets off the mark after making his debut against the Black & Gold.
Another factor in San Jose’s turnaround has been a tactical one. In addition to a move to three in the back, the Quakes have backed off a bit in the man-marking system that has been so closely associated with Almeyda throughout his coaching career.
“We have made changes to our strategies quite a bit. It depends a lot on the opponents we are up against. Since I have arrived, we have never done the same pressure, as an example. It's been two and a half years,” Almeyda said. “The most natural thing from people looking from outside is to say that we played the same way or made a certain change.
"I understand, but every time we face an opponent, there are different qualities in how we play and press, if we are higher or lower, but the idea remains the same. I think there has been a huge change from the game in which we were conceding many goals. It is up to yourself to recognize and correct these mistakes, and that is where the positive changes come from."