SAN JOSE, Calif. – It is tempting to link the change in San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Tommy Thompson’s productivity to the ascension of new coach Chris Leitch. Since Leitch assumed control last month, Thompson has started all five of the Quakes’ competitive matches, providing two assists in U.S. Open Cup play and his first MLS goal after starting his career with a 63-game drought.
Yet the 21-year-old Thompson points to a moment during the reign of former coach Dominic Kinnear as the turning point for his fortunes: Late in the second half against Orlando City on May 17, Thompson’s ball to the back post turned into an assist on team captain Chris Wondolowski’s game-tying goal.
Thompson’s first career point in league play helped secure a critical point for the Quakes in their quest to regain a playoff spot, and gave him a sorely-needed boost in morale.
“It’s crazy how much one stat can mean, but it inspires confidence," Thompson told MLSsoccer.com last week. "Since then, I think it’s been all downhill. ... I knew once I got the monkey off my back, the rest would come.”
Regardless of the genesis of his surge, it’s undeniable that Thompson has finally begun to unveil in games the kind of tools that have long made him an object of fascination in skills challenges over the years. As the Quakes have become more entertaining and assertive under Leitch – even in a situation such as the 5-1 loss San Jose suffered against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday – Thompson has perhaps been the fullest representation of that change.
“I think we can be the team that puts teams on the back foot and outscores teams,” Thompson said. “That’s what we did [in a 3-2 win against the LA Galaxy in the US Open Cup quarterfinals]. Yeah, they scored two goals on us, but we put three in the back of the net. It feels good.”
The biggest observable difference regarding Thompson’s game is a level of decisiveness that seemed lacking at times previously, and this is not by accident. As Leitch made it clear in his initial press conference after taking the job, his vision of the Quakes affords them more chances to fail – and to learn from that process.
“With certain players, especially the attackers, you’re going to ask them to take risks to change a game and to beat your opponent, to try the final pass, to attempt a shot,” Leitch told reporters after San Jose’s 4-1 exhibition romp over Eintracht Frankfurt last week. “And so if you’re going to ask those players to do that, then you have to know … within that risk, those things aren’t always going to come off, and so you have to be OK with that, so that those creative guys can have the space to be creative and to express themselves and try those things.”
That theory of allowing young players to make mistakes seems to be working for the Earthquakes. Rookie Jackson Yueill, who spent much of the year buried on Kinnear’s depth chart, has been a key cog for Leitch. And Homegrown defender Nick Lima, who moved straight into Kinnear’s lineup as a rookie this season, has been deployed as a wingback when the Quakes utilize a 3-5-2 formation, giving him license to roam forward even more freely than in Kinnear’s usual 4-4-2.
“Even [Valeri Qazaishvili] is a great example of the Quakes’ shift to wanting young, talented players before they’re in their prime,” Thompson said, citing the recent addition of 24-year-old attacker. “It’s exciting to be a part of. This locker room has changed drastically since I signed when I was 18. But I think we’re going in the right direction.
"Young players have the ability to show well on the biggest stages, if they’re given confidence. I think Jackson’s shown that. I think Nick’s shown that.”
That is a sea change for a Quakes team that is still finding its way under Leitch, who previously had front-office experience but no coaching reps at this level.
“Winning is always fun, but winning with style is all the better,” Thompson said. “I would say this is the most fun I’ve had as a pro. I think part of that comes from getting assists and getting a goal.
“I said at the beginning of this season: this is the most talent we’ve had in this locker room since I’ve been here. And I think we’re only getting better. We’re only getting more and more confident with each other, with the coaching staff. I’m really looking forward to what’s going to come with the rest of the year.”