SAN JOSE, Calif. — After a brutal first month of the season, in which they dropped all four games and shipped 14 goals to opponents, the San Jose Earthquakes were looking for any ray of hope on Saturday against the Portland Timbers.
In the glow of the setting California sun at Avaya Stadium, they got it, dominating the visiting Timbers from the opening whistle and winning 3-0. It was a night and day difference when compared the 5-0 loss they suffered the week prior at the hands of LAFC.
Head coach Matias Almeyda celebrated his first win as Quakes coach, and three different players put their names on the score sheet: Shea Salinas, Danny Hoesen, and Cristian Espinoza.
The win lifts San Jose out of the Western Conference basement and raises everyone’s spirits ahead of a challenging road trip to the Houston Dynamo next Saturday. With the players still basking in the limelight, here are three important takeaways from their win against Portland.
Almeyda made a host of changes to his lineup against the Timbers, some by choice and others due to injuries. Chris Wondolowski and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, the team’s two Designated Players and starters in the first four games of the season, were benched in favor of Hoesen and Salinas, who both scored goals on Saturday. Almeyda looked smart on that decision.
Among the constants in the starting eleven from last weekend’s LAFC debacle was Tommy Thompson, playing right back, though tasked just as much with getting forward into the attack. He assumed the role, which had been owned for two-plus seasons by Nick Lima, for the Earthquakes game at the New York Red Bulls. Lima, for the second straight game, was left on the substitutes bench.
Thompson was filling some big shoes, to be sure, as Lima began the calendar year impressing with the U.S. men’s national team, but the sixth-year Homegrown was happy to make the position his own.
“I like it,” Thompson shared after the victory. “I told Matias at the beginning of the season, ‘I just want to be on the field.’ And if he thinks I can help the team at right back, I’m going to play right back. If he thinks I can help the team at center mid, I can play center mid. I just want to be on the field, so I’m excited and I want to contribute any way I can.”
Thompson trained throughout the preseason at right back, and when Lima did arrive back from national team camp, he served as an understudy, subbing in for Lima in the final tune-up games and to start the season. It was a decision that Almeyda made in order to balance the strengths of both players.
“Nick has the same opportunities as everyone else,” Almeyda said in his postgame press conference. “Today, Tommy is doing very well. He’s taking advantage of the position I am putting him in. Nick had started the season, but, unfortunately, he had some defensive errors that turned into goals. Now we have others that are going to challenge him and make him regain his confidence and form. They are all important.”
Almeyda highlighted that Lima’s time with the U.S. national team was productive for his personal progress, but it was not the same style of play the coach is instituting in San Jose. He believes Lima will be able to improve on both fronts given more time on the training field, and this will only further intensify the battle within the team for playing time.
Thompson, for his part, is taking full advantage of the opportunity. He has had an up and down career, based on performances, since signing as a teenager back in 2014. In 98 appearances since then, 46 of them starts, he has scored only one goal and added 4 assists. All of those came in the 2017 campaign, so he knows that will a new coach in Almeyda at the helm, he has to prove himself worthy of taking the field. Thompson is enjoying the moment.
“There’s a lot of good players in this locker room, and I think we have a deep team,” he said. “It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Wooden spoon woes
The Earthquakes dismal 2018 season left them holding the Wooden Spoon for worst overall record in MLS, and their 0-4 start to the new campaign had some wondering if they would repeat the feat with another last-place finish this year. At least for one weekend, those thoughts were pushed from the players’ minds, especially that of Florian Jungwirth, the team’s emotional leader.
“It’s a big relief for everybody,” Jungwirth said, flashing a big smile while standing at his locker. “When you lose four games in a row, especially in the way we did, and additionally the last season, which you have in your head already, it means a lot. But it’s only one win, so we have to keep going. It’s just the start, and we have to play from the back now, but it feels good to win.”
The victory elevated the Quakes out of the Western Conference basement, allowing room for the Timbers to take their place. Portland is in the midst of a 12-game road trip to open the season as renovations are completed at Providence Park, so the defending regular season conference champions will be hoping a home-heavy second half schedule allows them to push for a playoffs spot.
Meanwhile, in San Jose, the hope is that the victory can provide a catalyst for their own success. While it is way too early to proclaim the Earthquakes a contender for MLS Cup, the players do feel that the best is yet to come this season, especially as they embrace the challenges put forth by Almeyda and bring a passion to their play, every single possession.
“It feels good not being last, putting the Wooden Spoon in another city now, so that’s also very important,” Jungwirth said. “And now, this has to be our way to success. I’m sure we can confirm this next week against Houston which will be a tough one.”
The Quakes face the Dynamo this Saturday before hosting Sporting KC the following weekend. Both opponents have started the season brightly, having gained experience in the Concacaf Champions League, and will provide a measuring stick as to just how good San Jose can be.
Almeyda’s starting eleven shakeup had a few victims, with Wondolowski, the team’s leader for many seasons, benched in favor of Hoesen, last year’s leading scorer. Salinas, himself a mainstay of the Earthquakes for many years, wore the captain’s armband in Wondo’s stead against the Timbers.
Though on the precipice of making MLS goal-scoring history, Wondolowski has failed to make progress in that pursuit to start the season, not registering a single shot in goal in four games. The decision to replace him with Hoesen, who himself put four shots on frame against Portland, paid dividends to Almeyda in helping the coach register his first MLS victory.
In 2018, Wondolowski was also pulled from the starting lineup for the fifth game of the season, playing as a substitute for three games, but the team’s fortunes didn’t improve, and he was back in the eleven in short order. He featured in all 34 games last season, with 23 of those as a starter, reaching 10 goals for the year and extending his double-digits annual tally to nine seasons.
Late in the game against Portland, with the Quakes cruising to victory, Almeyda still had one more substitution to make. In a move more significant to the history books than the game, he pointed to Vako and left Wondo on the bench.
The last time Wondolowski was in an Earthquakes matchday 18 and did not take the field was April 10, 2010, a 2-1 win at the Chicago Fire in game two of the season. Ryan Johnson and Arturo Alvarez were the starters for Frank Yallop’s squad that day, with Cornell Glen coming in as the lone attacking substitute.
This was well before Wondo was a household name for Quakes fans. That process of recognition would begin the next week, when the forward began a streak of four consecutive starts with a goal, cementing his name in the starting lineup. By the end of the 2010 season, Wondolowski celebrated earning the MLS Golden Boot.
Fast forward to Saturday, and Wondo, when available for the Earthquakes, had played in 278 consecutive games. Only time away with the U.S. national team kept him from donning the Black and Blue over a decade of seasons. It was a quiet end to a significant streak in MLS and Earthquakes soccer history.