CARSON, Calif. – If the opening minutes of Week 19's California Clasico couldn't have gone worse for the San Jose Earthquakes, what followed was pure joy.
Major League Soccer's most improved team – with more than double the win total of last year's cellar-dwellers – issued a statement to its archrival and the league as a whole while completing its first season sweep of the LA Galaxy in 18 years with a 3-1 triumph that was nowhere near as tight as the scoreline might suggest.
The Earthquakes (9W-7L-4D), who vaulted to fourth place in the Western Conference, couldn't overturn an early deficit until an hour had passed, but even the home side knew it was over well before then. They dictated terms in every possible manner, set club records with 32 shots (to just five for LA) and 16 shots on goal (to just one for LA) and might have set scoring marks – for club and league – with more precise finishing and if not for former San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham's phenomenal 14-save performance.
“Definitely one of the best games,” said Swedish midfielder Magnus Eriksson, whose connections with, especially, wingers Cristian Espinoza and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili (photo below) carved up the Galaxy defense most of the night. “The first five minutes, it feels like we're still in the bus, but after those five, it felt like we were in charge of the game. We played good. We have nothing to be ashamed of today.”
The Galaxy went ahead at the start – Rolf Feltscher volleying home Jonathan dos Santos's corner kick just 102 seconds into the match – and might have doubled their advantage in the 23rd, when Feltscher headed another Dos Santos corner kick off the crossbar. That came against the run of play, and the Galaxy had nothing more to offer.
San Jose attacked in wave after wave, continually finding open spaces to exploit, took absolute command of midfield, and penned LA inside its half, often inside its defensive third. The Quakes didn't find the net until the 61st minute, when Vako fired through traffic at the top of the box and inside the left post, then went ahead when the Georgian creator set up Danny Hoesen three minutes later.
Jackson Yueill's volley, after Bingham parried Vako's 1-v-1 attempt, ended whatever suspense remained in the 85th minute.
It was over long before.
“We deserved to lose,” Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “We couldn't stop them. ... After the first 20 minutes, the game was lost.”
San Jose scored two late goals to beat the Galaxy, 3-0, nearly two weeks earlier at Stanford Stadium, a game that was much closer, as Schelotto noted afterward and again this week, when he called that one “very even ... no difference between in all the game” and said the Week 19 showdown at Dignity Health Sports Park was a “revenge” game.
The Quakes heard him, not that it mattered a whole lot to them.
“We knew about the comment, but we really didn't pay attention to it,” said Espinoza (photo below), the best player on the field. “We just focused on our work, focused on what we have to do.”
Chris Wondolowski admitted it got a little under the Quakes' skin.
“Bother? No,” he said. “Irk? Maybe. It's 3-0 [at Stanford], exactly. We'll take the stats in this one.”
San Jose won just four games last year, hasn't posted a winning record since 2014, and has done little since winning 19 games and the Supporters' Shield seven years ago to remind fans of the glory days before the 2006 move to Houston: the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cup titles and 2005 Shield triumph.
The Quakes now are playing at a similar level. Matias Almeyda has transformed the team through a philosophy emphasizing collective play, hard work, pristine fitness, and an unerring belief in what they do. They've gone 6W-1L-2D since a May 11 loss at New England, 9W-3L-4D (while outscoring foes, 31-17) since an 0W-4L-0D start, and might just be scratching the surface of what they can be.
“We started the season really bad, knowing that they had suffered a year of losses and tough moments, and little by little we have been putting together a group,” said Almeyda, an Argentine standout in Europe and in two World Cups who took charge following last season's debacle. “And within that group they have interpreted a soccer identity, and we're getting there. We're in the fight, but we are happy because the players, our leaders, and our community are a lot happier than last year.”
Wondolowski says everyone is having a blast.
“I've been lucky to be part of 2012, even 2005, and this team ranks right up there with them,” he said. “I love the way that we play, I love the philosophy and just how [Almeyda] goes about both on the field and off the field. It's bringing a joy to the game. You see it each guy's eyes and face. It's hard work, it's very tough, but it's fun at the same time.”
MLS's all-time goals leader says the Earthquakes are “starting to hit our stride.” They don't want to get ahead of themselves.
“We need to stay humble, because we know what happened last season,” Eriksson said. “We know that we produce well at the moment, but if we start to [be cocky] about our way of playing, I think we can go straight down. We need to stay humble, we need to stay united as a team, and if we do that, we will continue to take victories. But we are nothing without that.”