PORTLAND, Ore. — The San Jose Earthquakes fell to the Portland Timbers on Decision Day presented by AT&T, costing them a berth in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. That they were even one win away from being a playoff team, though, was something of a miracle.
In 2018, the Earthquakes finished with a 4W-21L-9D record and 21 points, easily last in the Western Conference and seven points adrift of the next-worst team in the league. With mostly the same roster and a new head coach in Matias Almeyda, San Jose improved to 13W-16L-5D (44 points) in 2019, and narrowly missed out on the postseason on the final day after a 3-1 loss in Portland on Sunday.
“There was a big change in this group,” Almeyda said. “We pretty much played with 85 percent of the same players last season who were in last place with a bunch of goals conceded and not too many scored.”
Before the season, expectations were low for the Earthquakes. But Almeyda came in and brought with him a new system to make San Jose competitive. The Earthquakes played a high-energy man-marking defense all year and made teams work to keep up with them. San Jose brought that same energy to Providence Park, even if the result wasn’t what they wanted.
“It was a very hard, physical game,” Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala said after the win. “We were running a lot because that’s what you have to do when you play against a team like San Jose.”
After a tough start that saw them go winless in their first four games, San Jose rallied as high as second place in the Western Conference standings this summer. The end of the season looked a lot like the beginning, though, with San Jose losing six in a row and nine of their last 11. It was a disappointing end, but they feel the overall improvement – nine wins and 23 points more than last year — was significant.
“The team started off badly, then [for] 60 to 70 percent of the season the team played excellently,” Almeyda said. “If I were to make a quick balance, I’d say it was positive.”
San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski agreed, noting that even though the playoffs are where every team wants to be, the improvement from the team this season is a positive sign moving forward.
“It’s always disappointing to not make the playoffs,” said Wondolowski, who scored the lone goal for the team on Sunday. “But at the same time, I felt that we built a foundation where we’re not bailing out water anymore, and finally have a secure foundation, know what to do, know our identity and can really build on that and go forward.”
Earlier this week, Almeyda said that win or lose against the Timbers, San Jose’s success in 2019 didn’t hinge entirely on Decision Day. Even after a loss, Almeyda still feels proud of how his team played all year long.
“I wanted them to be a team where everybody runs and everybody plays and they did it well,” Alymeyda said. “We didn’t do it perfect...because if it was, we would still be in the season. But I show you that you look at a San Jose player today and you look back a year, there’s been a huge change. I’m only left with thankful words for everything that they put in.”