SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Earthquakes may have saved their 2017 playoff hopes with a 2-1 victory against the Portland Timbers on Saturday night. But the path to victory might have been laid 24 hours earlier, when the Quakes came together at a local mall for a team dinner on the eve of their make-or-break contest.
“It was nothing about tactics or about the game. It was just getting together and having a meal and feeling like a family,” said Quakes forward Danny Hoesen, who scored in the 49th minute to provide what would eventually be the winning margin. “I think that’s the most important [thing] in a team – you have to feel good and confident with each other. That’s what the dinner was about.”
The meal, organized by general manager Jesse Fioranelli, helped the Quakes put aside their 4-1 home defeat to Chicago on Wednesday night, a match in which San Jose looked so lifeless that captain Chris Wondolowski called it his side’s low point of the season.
“Obviously, after our loss, everybody’s upset, everybody’s angry,” Hoesen said. “We just wanted to make sure we’re still a good team outside of the field. If outside of the field is good, the inside of the field is good as well.”
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The changes by coach Chris Leitch – five new players, including initial goal-scorer Valeri "Vako" Qazaishvili, plus a positional shift for Hoesen – worked to put the hosts on the front foot in their quest to keep pace in a crowded race to stay above the Western Conference red line. Portland coach Caleb Porter admitted that his team "didn’t handle it well” when the Quakes came out with confidence in the first half and got a little sloppy.
“It just looked like a little more confidence, a little more belief in each other, in themselves,” Leitch said of his squad. “They just really wanted this game tonight, for sure. And they wanted to be on the ball.”
With Darwin Ceren back to partner Anibal Godoy in the center of San Jose’s midfield, Leitch could afford to station two of his most creative players – Qazaishvili and Jahmir Hyka, neither of whom opened against the Fire – on the wings. Hyka, making his first start since Aug. 12, took advantage of Roy Miller’s poor back pass to set up Qazaishvili in the 16th minute. Nabbing possession along the right side, Hyka weaved past Liam Ridgewell, raced to the center of the pitch and set the table for Qazaishvili to fire home from 15 yards out.
Qazaishvili played a big part in the second goal as well, taking a lead pass from rampaging center back Victor Bernardez and feeding it to Wondolowski, who in turn sent it on to Hoesen. The Dutchman spun and took a couple of slight touches before launching a shot through Miller’s legs and past the dive of Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.
That was enough to push the Quakes into a three-way tie on 42 points with FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, with only two matches left on San Jose’s schedule.
“I’m proud that we responded the way we did,” Wondolowski said. “I’m a bit irked that it took all of us, especially myself, took Wednesday night off, because that was an important one. But we moved on, and it was a huge three points tonight.”