San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy walk drastically different paths after fateful 2012 playoff clash

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The 2012 San Jose Earthquakes set a single-season team record with 72 goals, turning that offensive juggernaut into 19 regular-season victories and a Supporters’ Shield.

The 2012 LA Galaxy finished fourth in the Western Conference and needed to win a single-elimination match against the Vancouver Whitecaps just to face the Quakes in the first full round of that year’s MLS Cup playoffs.

Yet even after losing 1-0 in Carson to start the home-and-home aggregate series, the Galaxy nevertheless posted a 3-1 victory at Buck Shaw Stadium, shattering the Quakes’ dreams of winning their first title since 2003.

LA went on to claim that year’s MLS Cup title, their second in a row, and did so again in 2014. With the addition of Steven Gerrard and Giovani Dos Santos in this most recent transfer window, the Galaxy appear primed to chase after a fourth crown in five seasons, which would burnish their argument about being the best dynasty in MLS history -- even better than the Quakes/Houston Dynamo hybrid which took four Cups between 2001 and ’07.

Meanwhile, San Jose ended up thoroughly dismantling a team that won the club’s only silverware since the Quakes’ rebirth as an expansion side in 2008.

On the field, only defender Victor Bernardez, midfielder Shea Salinas and forward Chris Wondolowski remain from the 2012 campaign. (Forward Steven Lenhart also starred in ’12, but hasn’t played this year due to extensive knee problems.) Assistant coach Ian Russell survived, as did general manager John Doyle.

Two roads diverged during that 2012 playoff matchup. And the Quakes took the one more painful.

“The 2012 team, after winning [19] games that season, yeah, you would think it would stick around a little longer,” Salinas said Tuesday. “But it’s kind of the nature of the league. Guys come and go. There are injuries, trades. It is a little surprise now that I look back at it, but it’s also the nature of the league. You don’t see many teams stay together for too long.”

The change didn’t happen overnight. Even after the surprise knockout, the Quakes tried to keep their roster intact. San Jose retained 13 of their 14 most-used players from 2012, including double-digit scorers Wondolowski (27 goals, tying the league’s single-season record), Lenhart (10) and Alan Gordon (13) plus eight players with at least six assists each, including team leader Marvin Chavez (13).

But the player that got away, Tottenham Hotspur loanee Simon Dawkins, proved to be just the first domino. The team was wracked by injuries early -- to Chavez, Gordon, Lenhart and right back Steven Beitashour -- and those absences were compounded by multi-game suspensions for the first three.

The team started 3-6-6, leading to an early June departure for coach Frank Yallop in what team president David Kaval would famously describe as an “aha moment.” Assistant Mark Watson guided the Quakes to an 11-5-3 finish, but San Jose fell short of a playoff berth on a tiebreaker. That push was good enough to earn Watson the full-time gig, but a disastrous, last-place 2014 season drove the Quakes to bring back former head man Dominic Kinnear, who had been leading Houston since the Dynamo’s arrival in 2006.

Kinnear’s comeback seemed to have stalled during a winless July, but when the Quakes posted three wins in the span of nine days -- two on the road against top-flight competition from Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United -- this month, they hauled themselves back into serious playoff contention. And with their third and final regular-season California Clasico coming up Friday night at Avaya Stadium (11 pm; UniMás/UnivisionDeportes.com), the Quakes can make a statement that the gap between these two old in-state rivals is narrowing, even as the Galaxy’s star power is burning as brightly as ever.

“It’s just a fresh start,” Wondolowski said. “2012 was a long time ago. I was a young man then. ... It’s a new group, new coach, new home, new everything. But we still have the same belief, that we can go out there and win. I think that’s what separated us that year, was just our mentality and belief.”

The Quakes need more than simple self-confidence, however. Doyle acknowledged earlier this month that it’s unlikely San Jose will ever compete in the arms race that MLS transfer windows are fast becoming. So his club must make up ground in other areas.

“You look at what Toronto has done and you look at what Vancouver, over time [has done],” Doyle said. “You look at Portland, they just signed a $5 million player [Lucas Melano]. They already had four DPs and already had bought down guys over years. Seattle, the West, all the teams are spending. I think it’s Colorado and us that are not spending at the rate that those guys are.

“So we have to ... maybe [find] better ways to identify talent. Better ways to do things. Because we’re never going to spend like those teams. That’s the history of it. You just look at the math. So we have to do it a different way and be more productive in what we do.”

The Quakes took steps in that direction this summer. San Jose brought in forward Quincy Amarikwa in exchange for third center back Ty Harden, then used an undisclosed portion of their funds from the Targeted Allocation Money mechanism to sign Panamanian midfielder Anibal Godoy. Neither has the pedigree of Gerrard or Dos Santos, but both were pieces that fit perfectly into Kinnear’s plans.

Amarikwa, despite his 5-foot-9 stature, has provided hold-up play of a quality that the Quakes have lacked since Gordon and Lenhart were fully healthy, tallying four goals and three assists in eight matches. And Godoy’s cool-headed defending and deft passing has not only solidified San Jose’s defensive midfield -- the Quakes have not allowed a goal in his three appearances -- but also freed Wondolowski to play higher up the pitch, and he responded with three goals in his last two games.

“Payrolls help a lot,” Wondolowski admitted. “You look around the league, it’d be nice to have a [Sebastian] Giovinco, a Robbie Keane, guys like that that are really outstanding players. But I’d rather have 11 that are on the same page. That can go a long way in this league. T

“There’s a lot of parity, and a lot of variables that determine [games]. Travel, weather -- things of that nature make it very difficult in this league to really separate top to bottom, and make it where every game is a tough one. ... We bring in guys like Quincy and Godoy, who I love playing with. I think that kind of sums us up.”

To some extent, of course, LA benefit from the best of both worlds. The Galaxy enjoy their share of big names, but so do other MLS clubs -- such as the NYCFC squad which LA eviscerated 5-1 last weekend. The difference? LA’s stars fit together coherently, and their more modestly priced starters are hugely effective, from a cost-to-value ratio.

“They have some great superstars, but they have some great workhorses out there, as well: [Gyasi] Zardes, [Sebastian] Lletget, A.J. DeLaGarza, Juninho. These guys are some of the most underrated players in the league, and they get overlooked.”

It’s easy to do that, of course, when you feature Keane, the Irish captain and reigning league MVP; Gerrard, former England and Liverpool captain; and Dos Santos, an in-his-prime star unlike any Mexican international MLS has seen before.

“It’s still 11 guys vs. 11 guys,” Kinnear said. “If you want to look at bios and resumes before you step on the field, it’s a bad idea. These guys are great players, as we know, but they all make mistakes. You just have to make sure that you cannot give them time and confidence, because that’s when those players can definitely hurt you.

“If you step on the field going, ‘Oh, we’re playing against these guys and these guys,’ then you’re not giving yourself a chance. I always say you respect your opponent but no way can you fear them. There’s no way that we step on the field with any fear on Friday.”