Perhaps it's no coincidence that the San Jose Earthquakes' first win since the MLS is Back Tournament sparked the same kind of celebration that marked the Quakes' time in Orlando: the entire team, bench and players on the field, coming together in a frenzy, this time after Jackson Yueill tucked home a remarkable backheel finish to had his team an unexpected 2-1 win at LAFC.
And after going on the road — where the Quakes had conceded an astounding 26 goals in their last five games coming into Sunday's contest — against a team they'd never even gotten so much as a point against in league play, head coach Matias Almeyda hailed his team's commitment to turning a grim situation around.
“The only thing I ask of the players is that they double down against adversity,” said Almeyda. “In life and football, whoever fights is not dead. We have a team with youngsters, a team with many injuries, and today we were able to give happiness to the group, to the fans, to the board — especially because of the opponent and the uncomfortable situation we have come from, conceding so many goals. The players gave their souls and we went back to what we had part of last year and during Orlando.”
San Jose have been one of the league's most intriguing MLS teams to watch since Almeyda took over following the 2018 campaign, with his tenure marked by a unique style of play and a clear, vocal passion he shows for the game of soccer and his colleagues within the game. But after an thrilling 2019 season in which a late collapse doomed their playoff chances, followed by an eye-catching run to the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament, it has not been at all rosy for Almeyda's Quakes.
In addition to their brutal record on the road, San Jose were unable to win any of their three games at home, leaving them with just three points from an eight-game stretch that had them playing nearly every three days. Most recently, after their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Colorado on Wednesday, things looked particularly grim as captain and talisman Chris Wondolowski called the team "mentally weak" at the moment and Almeyda warned of a reversion to an old mentality.
Yueill's magical game-winner
There were certainly some adjustments against LAFC as the Quakes dropped a little deeper and lowered their line of engagement after getting repeatedly burned in behind during some of their lopsided losses, but according to the goalscorer Yueill, there was one key factor outside of even tactics, technical ability or fitness that made all the difference on Wednesday, even as Cristian Espinoza served up a picture-perfect winner for Yueill in the third minute of stoppage tie.
“At the beginning of the game we talked about trust, and we’ve been lacking a lot of trust in each other and in ourselves — today our one goal was to trust each other,” said Yueill. “Cristian’s a phenomenal player and I had faith that he was going to be able to beat anyone on the field tonight, and he proved it in the most important moment and was able to put in a perfect cross. So I think the most important thing for everyone right now is trusting that your teammate is going to win the duel that he’s faced up against and play the right pass and that’s what he did.”
Shea Salinas, who came on in a familiar supersub role to spark the Quakes' rally, just as he bagged a dramatic winner for the team a few months earlier in Orlando, similarly praised the team's persistence and faith in the system, even as things looked like they might once again get ugly after LAFC opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime.
“We’re the same team that everyone was talking about in Florida, we just have to believe in ourselves and I think tonight you saw that. We were confident playing out of the back, even when we lost the ball we kept playing out of the back, even when we lost the ball we kept playing, getting into tackles.”
After playing on weekend and midweek games every week starting Aug. 29, San Jose will now get a brief respite in the form of close to a full week off before they host the LA Galaxy on Oct. 3. They'll enjoy their first win ever against the reigning Supporters' Shield champs, but recognize it's a long road ahead with the team still sitting four points out of playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“We’re going to enjoy the victory tonight for sure,” said Yueill. “We struggled a little bit in the earlier games and this is one of the best teams in MLS despite some of their recent results. I think they’re a phenomenal team and of course we’re going to be happy about the result but we’re still in last place and we still have a long way to go to get in playoff spots.”
Almeyda similarly warned of a trying road ahead.
“Like I've said before, this season will continue to be difficult,” said the Argentinian coach. “We have a short-handed roster. We are depending on the youngsters so that they are more developed in future seasons. We obviously did not want to lose many games by many goals. However, one win does not change anything.
“The system has not changed, although it was more defensive. We try not to give up what we want to execute. It will be difficult because we have to play every game this way. Today, even through adversity, with losing so many games and conceding many goals, I think we recovered the energy that this team is known for. … The celebration we had tonight, similar to the one in Orlando, shows the togetherness of this team. We do have what it takes to move forward, even considering the reality of our situation.”