“In life, when one insists with what one planned and practiced, surely you will have your reward.”
Is it Scripture? An excerpt from the Buddha’s teachings, or perhaps something from the Tao Te Ching?
I’d have probably taken your word for it on any of the above, but no, this is a snippet from Matias Almeyda’s press conference on Wednesday night after his amazing San Jose Earthquakes won that… well, merely calling it a “game” doesn’t really do it justice, does it?
To be honest, there’s probably not much I can write here that does the thing justice, either. Maybe it’s better to call it a journey, an epic 100-minute trek through space, time and emotion that the Quakes somehow completed a nose ahead of the desperately unfortunate Vancouver Whitecaps FC, as San Jose won 4-3 once the final whistle was blown.
We had ugly own goals and goalkeeper howlers and a quadruple substitution and two new MLS records for the number of corner kicks taken, and a Chris Wondolowski poach job and last but definitely not least, Shea Salinas’ improbable last-gasp winner, a stunner that prompted his team’s athletic trainers to use the proverbial magic spray like a jury-rigged pyrotechnic display in the midst of the delirious celebrations. By that point I was cackling out loud at my desk like a depraved idiot at each twist and turn, and I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.
“What you saw tonight was a team that perseveres through adversity,” said Salinas afterwards. “We made mistakes, we didn't hang our head down, we kept fighting. I mean, it was a crazy game to be a part of, but I'm proud of the way we play. We play with a ton of fight, we play an honest game. It was a fun thing to be part of.”
Almeyda’s remarks to the media sounded like a sermon at times, a proud pastor ruminating on the cosmos and extolling the virtues of his imperfect but irrepressible flock.
“I feel very proud to coach this group. I trust in each and every one of them,” said Almeyda, flanked by Salinas and Oswaldo Alanis, two heroes of the night who arrived at this moment along drastically different life and career paths, a microcosm of the Quakes’ strange brew. “We’re a sporting family. In every place I’m at, I try to bring people together, to transmit not only soccer – but this group goes beyond soccer. It has values that are really important. But I’m not saying that today because we won 4-3. I say it and I would’ve said it had we lost.
“They gave it everything they had, and what they didn't have,” he added later.
The only fixture of the day at the MLS is Back Tournament featured two teams who finished in the wrong half of the Western Conference standings last season, and carried about as many questions as answers coming into this one. Two teams who duly showed us their flaws over the two halves and yet left us – most of us, at least, I hope – grateful for what they’d given us, marveling at the pure, desperate, relentless chaos of it all, feeling like we’d just experienced something more akin to a high-octane house party or a stolen-car joyride or a dodgily-maintained rollercoaster than a soccer match.
And in the end, the side that dared, won. As many gut-churning gaffes as the Quakes committed, despite all the reason-defying risks they took all over the field from practically the opening whistle, they never stopped playing, pushing, prodding.
And as much as the Whitecaps stood toe to toe with them swapping haymakers, there seemed to be just the slightest bit more hesitation on the Canadian side’s part, a semblance of a voice of reason somewhere telling them to hold what they had, to weather the storm, to be sensible. Most of us can relate to that – but when you ARE the storm, you have an advantage over those in your path. And on Wednesday, the Quakes were the force of nature.
We pundits have extensively gawked and analyzed Almeyda’s system, his style, his unorthodox way of doing things. We’ve pondered just how far those quirks and tactics can possibly take a squad that doesn’t have the preponderance of high-priced talent that many of its MLS counterparts possess. But we overlook the human element at our peril.
“We train every day and I bore them a lot of times showing them things, but I tell them I will not stop insisting, so that each one of them becomes a better player, and as a consequence they’re going to make me a better coach,” said Almeyda. “So we work all the same, we work together and we work with happiness. That’s the reality of this group: It’s a happy group. They know that with me they can make mistakes as long as they keep insisting. I give them security and I hope they can transmit it and they are giving back to me happy soccer nights like these that will forever be remembered.”
No match, no matter how enthralling, can be separated from its context. And if you’re among those who think sports simply should not be happening right now, in the midst of a global pandemic that is killing thousands of our fellow human beings with no end in sight, I understand completely. But this night provided a reminder of why billions of people around the world have for decades turned to this beautiful game to get a break from their problems, their poverty, their woe.
The Quakes and ‘Caps brought us great joy, and for that, like Almeyda, I’m thankful.