National Writer: Charles Boehm

San Jose, Cristian Espinoza think big: LAFC ambush shows "flashes of our potential"


If you looked hard, perhaps squinted a bit, you might’ve glimpsed a vision of a brave new world for the San Jose Earthquakes in Saturday evening’s 2-1 victory.

Paced by a brace from their star winger and Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Cristian Espinoza, the Quakes handed defending MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield holders LAFC their first league loss of the season in front of 45,112 spirited fans enjoying this one-off occasion at sun-splashed Levi’s Stadium, the NFL-sized venue in Santa Clara, California that will host North America 2026 World Cup matches in three years’ time.

“It was very special to see all the fans here,” said Espinoza, who now stands tied with LAFC’s Dénis Bouanga and Seattle’s Jordan Morris atop the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race with eight goals, while also chopping in three assists and leading the league in key passes (28), postgame.

“I think it was more than 40,000, so that is something very special to feel from inside the field, all that support. We are very grateful to them, and we responded inside the field, and we can give them a victory to celebrate.”

The Argentine said all this and more in fluent English, confidently flashing newly-honed language skills that further underline the scope of his breakthrough 2023.

While Espinoza has been a consistent threat to deliver quality service since his arrival in San Jose in 2019, new head coach Luchi Gonzalez has nudged him towards more central positions, and the result is the highest season goal total of his MLS career, just 11 games into the campaign.

“Cristian is first and foremost an amazing human being, family guy; every training he works,” said Gonzalez. “He's a leader by example with how hard he works. He makes every exercise count, every competition count in training, and it shows. He reaps the reward on the field.

“I think he's a player that, you’ve got to get him closer to the goal. You know he's going to get crosses, he’s going to get assists. That’s what he does naturally. But if he's closer to the goal, closer to the box, he can score his own goals, right foot, left foot. We're really proud of him.”

And what about his league MVP credentials?

“Look, he's only going to get marked tighter, closed down. There’s going to be more physicality on him, double-teaming him,” said the former FC Dallas boss of MLS’s Player of the Month for April. “But he has such a great mentality, I’m confident he'll find solutions to keep being dangerous. And yeah, I definitely see his name can be relevant in any of these categories.

“What I love too is he got Player of the Month, the first thing he said to the team was, for me, it's team of the month, it's about the team. I care more about team of the month and team glory than the individual thing.”

Espinoza opened the scoring with a calm finish after a flowing Quakes buildup in the game’s early stages, then dispatched a late penalty kick after Bouanga extended his blistering form with an opportunistic equalizer. LAFC bossed possession on the day and asked some probing questions of their hosts in the second half, but the hangover from Tuesday’s draining Concacaf Champions League semifinal advacement over the Philadelphia Union was evident.

“I thought the performance was okay. It looked to me a little bit mentally and physically fatigued in the moments where the game is decided; that's in the final third,” said Black & Gold head coach Steve Cherundolo, whose side have now lost five straight in Northern California.

“We were in control. Certainly a game you shouldn't lose, but we did. And it's because in those few moments, those two, three moments, we weren't focused enough and didn't work hard enough and didn't follow the rules defensively, and we were punished. So maybe it's a blessing.”

This is San Jose’s fifth W of the young season, and it lifts them into a tie (on 18 points) with LAFC for third place in the Western Conference standings. That’s a nose-bleedingly lofty position compared to where they’ve spent all too much of the past decade, a period marked by underachievement, frustration and turnover.

Afterwards Gonzalez spoke of his previously woebegone team’s “high ceiling,” and there was also a distinct sense of an entire organization pushing against previous perceptions of its limitations.

“We are very excited. I think from the beginning of the year, we prepare very well with a new coach, with new staff,” said Espinoza. “Last year was really tough for us, a tough year when Matias [Almeyda] leaves, then [interim] Alex Covelo comes. Then this year was a new beginning for everybody. This new beginning comes with a lot of energy, and we take advantage of that.”

Many across MLS consider San Jose a sleeping giant, and both this game and their strong start show why. Both Espinoza and Gonzalez made clear they’d like to return to Levi’s for future engagements like Saturday’s, and later in the year they’ll continue their tradition of hosting California Clasico rivals LA Galaxy at Stanford Stadium.

Gonzalez wants to re-introduce his resurgent side to all of NorCal, noting the win showed “flashes of our potential” in 2023.

“It's cool, because it's just a different stimulus. It's an opportunity to connect with another part of our community. The Bay Area is huge, you know?” he said. “It's not easy for people in San Francisco to get to our games, or Gilroy or even Monterey Bay. It's just, there's all these pockets and dense areas that the game is growing in those areas; the youth communities and the newer generations, and to have more accessibility to the team based on playing in other venues, bigger venues, I like it.”