SAN JOSE, Calif. – There was music blaring on the speakers and beers chilling in coolers while members of the San Jose Earthquakes piled up in one corner for celebratory photographs. Even as media members were let into the home locker room at Avaya Stadium on Sunday afternoon, some players were still in uniform, too busy reveling in the Quakes’ 3-2 stoppage-time escape against Minnesota United – and the MLS Cup playoff berth that the win secured – to be bothered with showering.
It was a dramatic transformation from the scene that had played out Sept. 27. On that evening, in the wake of a 4-1 shellacking by Chicago, the Quakes’ locker room was a funereal place, one in which players unsparingly addressed the club’s frailties. The playoffs seemed out of reach.
How did the Quakes manage to find their form, securing seven out of nine points from their final three matches, at just the right moment?
The basis for the recovery came from the Quakes’ resilient sense of self-belief, which withstood a series of hammer-blow results as new coach Chris Leitch – who took the reins in late June – worked to instill a new style of play on the fly.
“I think this is the best locker room that I’ve been in,” said Quakes forward Danny Hoesen, a veteran of Dutch sides Ajax and FC Groningen. “Not only are there good players, but also great people. We just stick together, and if something was wrong with some player, then everyone was there for him. We always stayed together, kept positive. If you keep believing and stay together, then everything is possible.”
As San Jose captain Chris Wondolowski put it: “We’ve had, legitimately, three or four times this season where we’ve had our backs against the wall, backed into a corner. I haven’t been happy that we’ve been in those situations, but I’ve loved the response, every time, of our guys.”
Things began on short notice. San Jose had only two days to recover from their Fire defeat and get ready to face the Portland Timbers in the first of three matches that they simply couldn’t afford to lose. The Quakes scored twice, through Hoesen and midseason addition Valeri "Vako" Qazaishvili, and hung on for a 2-1 win.
San Jose followed that up with a gutty 1-1 draw at Western Conference leading Vancouver thanks to a late strike by Qazaishvili. With FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake dropping points that same day, the result moved San Jose above the playoff line.
“Sometimes you need good results,” Quakes defender Florian Jungwirth said. “Obviously, the game against Portland, it changed a bit, because three days before, we lost tough against Chicago here at home and then we played a really good game against Portland. We had a lot of meetings in the days after. We knew what we had to do, especially in Vancouver, we did it so well again. In this league, if you have two good games in a row, your self-confidence is going up.
“We believed in us until the end. It’s so nice that we finished like this and made us very proud.”
Stability also played its part. Leitch, who spent several weeks working within a 3-5-2 framework, eventually landed upon a 4-2-3-1 look that featured four of his most dangerous attacking players – Hoesen, Qazaishvili, Wondolowski and Jahmir Hyka – up top. He rode that same XI for all three of the Quakes’ final matches.
San Jose proved their growing mettle on Sunday by recovering from what could have been a disastrous goal in the 81st minute from Minnesota center back Francisco Calvo, a header that skidded off Jungwirth’s head and the underside of the crossbar to knot the game at 2-2. That result would have put Dallas into the playoffs and kept San Jose on the outside.
Instead of collapsing, the Quakes rose up, finding Marco Ureña for a stoppage-time winner that sent Avaya into delirium.
“I think we’ve done a good job talking about it, the situations or the times where we have some adversity, and how we get through that together,” Leitch said. “Not just everyone talking about it, but also the players kind of speaking about it, being objective and honest about those difficult times in a game and 1) recognizing when those times are and 2) sticking together and figuring out those two or three keys to kind of ride that spell in that particular game.
“For me, that’s the sign of a growing team, that together we’ve been able to articulate our way through those kind of tough moments and challenges where maybe we hadn’t, earlier.”
It’s all added up to a run that carried San Jose to their first playoff berth since 2012, when the Quakes shocked MLS by unexpectedly winning the Supporters’ Shield.
“I’m grateful for everyone here because there’s so many guys that could have given up on people, given up on this team, on each other,” Wondolowski said. “To a man, everyone still believes and does their job to the best of their capability. It showed today.”