No team has been at the MLS is Back Tournament longer than the San Jose Earthquakes, who arrived in Orlando way back on June 24 due to local COVID-19-related restrictions back home that limited their ability to train fully.
It’s safe to say that not everyone has relished their experience at the tournament, but the Quakes are having a blast as they sail into the quarterfinals.
“Every one of us enjoys being here,” said Magnus Eriksson after he bagged a brace from the penalty spot in San Jose’s 5-2 round-of-16 win over Real Salt Lake on Monday night. “That was actually one of the things we said before the game, on the field: We’ve been here for almost five weeks, so we can stay two more and then go all the way to the final.
“That’s our goal, and we enjoy it here — we play great as a team and enjoy every minute together. So I’m really happy to be here and a lot of guys on this team are happy to be here. So we’ll make the best out of the situation and try to go as far as we can.”
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Over the past few weeks head coach Matias Almeyda has offered some thoughtful perspectives on the tournament’s value in light of the wider upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and on Monday night he praised “the humility that this group has to interpret, the humility they have to train, the humility to sacrifice that each one of us had to come two weeks before the tournament started in Orlando and to leave behind our families” as he hailed his squad’s chemistry and commitment.
“There are a lot of things outside of soccer that in our group are fundamental. We don’t only coach soccer players, but we appreciate the human value that each of them has,” said the Argentine. “And we try keep unity, conviction and dialogue, and I think that every victory we earn is gratifying because we work a lot just like anyone else.
“But we do it with great sacrifice and it gives me great happiness for them, for our management, for the owners and for our families who have been waiting for us for over a month. And for those who are from countries with the uncertainty of wanting to know what’s happening with our family with respect to this pandemic. So we’re not only playing a soccer tournament here. We’re delivering a lot more than players kicking the ball or coaches designing a tactical game plan.”
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San Jose seem to be shifting through the gears as they advance in the tourney, looking stronger and more cohesive with each passing match, even when their pedal-to-the-metal style leads to mistakes and breakdowns like the one that allowed RSL to equalize within seconds of their opening goal.
“As a team tonight, we moved the ball among each other and created a lot of opportunities. I think this is one of the best performances we’ve done in a long time,” said Eriksson. “Everyone feels comfortable on the ball and we work together the whole time. We really feel like we’re strong together and that’s important out there.”
Almeyda also hinted at a collective hunger and a chip on the shoulder for a side that occasionally get left in the shadow of more illustrious Western Conference counterparts.
“Up until today many didn’t even have us playing this game here,” said 'El Pelado,' whose team will meet the winner of Tuesday’s Columbus-Minnesota match.
“I think game after game the team continues to grow, continues to show a very positive attitude in their unity and sacrifice, but more than anything in their play. The best thing for a coach is to get the maximum level from each player, because that will allow us to grow. Again, I’m thankful for every player and the commitment they showed.”