SAN JOSE, Calif. — On the same day they introduced Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili as the club’s youngest ever Designated Player signing, the San Jose Earthquakes took to the field for a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal clash against the LA Galaxy sporting their youngest starting 11 of the season.
And even without Vako in the lineup — he’ll likely make his MLS debut in a couple weeks — the Quakes dominated their rivals in an exciting 3-2 victory in front of an appreciative near-capacity crowd at Avaya Stadium.
Head coach Chris Leitch, only two weeks into his reign after taking over for Dominic Kinnear, has quickly transformed the Earthquakes into an attack-minded squad, and the three goal outburst was the fifth consecutive game in all competitions that his team has scored multiple goals — the first time that’s happened since an eight game run in San Jose’s Supporters’ Shield-winning 2012 season.
“We really have a strong belief in this locker room,” said Chris Wondolowski, who scored twice in the Open Cup win. “Any time we step out there, we feel that we want to impose our play, and also enjoy ourselves out there. Tonight, we had a good balance of the two.”
After years of featuring a rather conservative style of play, the Quakes, under Leitch’s leadership and a newly installed offensively oriented 3-5-2 formation, are taking more risks with the ball, and the team is noticeably more entertaining to watch. These Quakes are not waiting for the game to come to them; they are imposing their will on opponents instead.
“I thought the movement was pretty good,” Leitch said. “We stayed committed to the way we want to play and moving the ball, and that's really good to see. I think the effort, which has been consistent and constant, was again there.”
“We’re running a different formation,” added Tommy Thompson, who assisted on both of Wondolowski’s goals. “It’s definitely a very attacking formation that puts a lot of emphasis on putting teams on their back foot. Fortunately, we have the guys to do that, whether guys are on international duty or not, this team has a lot of depth.”
That depth was used to great effect Monday night, as Thompson, along with rookie Jackson Yueill, were handed the central midfield responsibilities against the Galaxy. Neither was intimated by the occasion or the opponent, and the two youngsters rewarded Leitch for his trust in them with a dominating performance in the heart of the formation. The duo also earned the praises of Wondolowski, as they gave him all the support he needed to bag his brace.
“I thought that those two ran that middle, especially against a very tough team in the Galaxy who use the middle of the field very well and love to throw numbers to overload the sides,” the captain said. “Jackson Yueill did a great job. I thought he was our man of the match. And Tommy Thompson, every time I looked up he was back there or overlapping and got two assists. I thought he had even better things that didn't go in the stat book tonight. Together, I thought Tommy and Jackson were excellent."
Leitch was pleased as well, pointing out that ever since he first scouted Yueill at UCLA, he has been impressed with the midfielder’s soccer IQ. The rookie’s ascension into the starting lineup continues, but Leitch is finding it easier and easier to put the game in his hands.
“It’s been a pretty damn good performance out of Jackson wherever I put him,” Leitch said. “Jackson has demonstrated here since he’s been a pro that he’s not just great with the ball at his feet and picking out that pass, but he can sniff out second balls and do his part defensively. I think Jackson has been fantastic every time he has been out there.”
The Earthquakes, due to injuries and international call-ups, have had a difficult time filling out their 18-man roster on game days — they had two goalkeepers on the bench against the Galaxy — but the young players are seizing their opportunities to play and are making a mark on the field. Thompson, especially, is proving to be the catalyst on offense that the Quakes were hoping for when he signed the club’s first Homegrown contract back in 2014.
“I hope so,” said Leitch. “He’s in a creative attacking role. I hope he’s loose and I hope he’s creative, and I hope he’s picking his times to take risks. That’s what we want. The number of risks he is going to take in that part of the field, you have to be okay with not all those plays coming off.”
Thompson wasn’t flawless in the central midfield, but he did post impressive passing (87.8% completion rate) and defensive (14 recoveries and 2 clearances) stats. He nearly added to the Earthquakes goal tally, too, with a pair of quality shots on either side of halftime.
In many ways, it was Tommy unleashed — a sight many in San Jose have been waiting to see since his MLS debut. And soon Thompson, Yueill, Wondolowski, and the rest of the resurgent Quakes will welcome Vako to the squad with thoughts of a trip to the Open Cup final and the MLS Cup playoffs paramount.
“It’s exciting to have another player like Vako step into the locker room because it is just going to make us more deep and it’s going to make us even more dangerous,” Thompson said. “I am very excited about the locker room this year. I think it is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here. I am really excited for what’s to come."