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Team unity, belief propel San Jose Earthquakes into playoff contender

“For us, it’s next man up. We feel we have a very deep team.” — Chris Wondolowski

SAN JOSE, Calif. — After comprehensively defeating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 at Avaya Stadium Wednesday night, the once hapless San Jose Earthquakes vaulted into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Take a moment to let that sink in.

This would have been unthinkable after the first month of the season, when the team dropped its first four games and looked lost on the field. But the players, buoyed by the guidance and leadership of new head coach Matias Almeyda never lost hope, and a stunning turnaround came as a result.

The shutout victory of the Dynamo extends the Quakes unbeaten streak to five games, 5-1-4 overall in their last ten league matches. Only LAFC, the runaway Supporters’ Shield favorite, has earned more points in that span. And following the steep learning curve of that first dreadful month, San Jose is suddenly a legit force to be reckoned with in the wild, wild West.

“I think the team became used to a different system of play in which they played totally different,” Almeyda said. “I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it was very different. Positions for the players were different. I think after putting in some work, the team is understanding what we are asking from them.”

The Earthquakes are 5-0-1 in their last six games at Avaya Stadium, restoring the facility to the castle status it earned when it first opened in 2015. San Jose has outscored its opponents 16-4 in those home games, and the players’ confidence level is apparent for all to see.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps in the right direction and really grown that belief,” captain Chis Wondolowski said. “It’s a funny thing, confidence. We bought into coach Matias’ game plan and when you execute it in the right way, it’s very effective. We were on some shaky ground the first couple games and weren’t all on the same page and got exposed. But when you have all eleven guys playing the way that we need to and executing the game plan, it’s very fun.”

Remarkably, the Quakes are making moves not with a stable lineup, but through a total team effort that has seen various starting elevens during the recent streak of success. Some changes were required due to injuries, suspensions, and national team call-ups, but other decisions by Almeyda came about via the coach’s team-first philosophy.

“We have players that are injured, others playing with their national teams, and everyone who has been playing has been taking advantage of the opportunity,” Almeyda said. “The system remains the same even when we change players, and that’s what our game is all about.”

“For us, it’s next man up,” Wondolowski added. “We feel we have a very deep team and we’re able to step up no matter what, but a lot of credit goes to Matias again. The way that we were planning on pressing them worked out very well. It worked out right into our hands and it kind of stifled them and took away a lot of their play. I think it also helped some of our key characteristics and it was a great game plan.”

Last season, the worst in franchise history, the Quakes struggled to build an identity under head coach Mikael Stahre, so it was surprising that most of the roster was retained in the offseason, with just a few changes made through signings and transfers. But Almeyda saw promise in those returning players, added a few key contributors in winger Cristian Espinoza and goalkeeper Daniel Vega, and has rejuvenated a squad that’s all-in on his system.

“I think the team is growing a lot,” Almeyda said. “We are trying to instill commonality within the players. For me, the way they communicate, their work ethic and unity are fundamental. In my first meeting with them, I said I wanted a team, not individuals, in which everyone put in their own grain of sand. We are achieving that.”

In what some fans have dubbed “Dinerobol” — a Spainish language twist on the Billy Beane inspired “Moneyball” approach to building a team through efficient spending — Almeyda has brought out the best in the roster he inherited from general manager Jesse Fioranelli. The Quakes’ two most expensive players, Wondolowski and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili were almost afterthoughts following the dismal first month of the season, but both attackers regrouped and learned what was expected of them by Almeyda. Now, Wondo leads the team in scoring, and Vako emerged as the hero with a two-goal performance against Houston.

“Vako was playing at the start of the season, but I felt that there were players that were performing better than him,” Almeyda said. “I communicated that to him, and the level that I want from Vako is the one we saw tonight. Sometimes it bothers the players to be taken out, which is normal, but I think that’s one way to create competition and bring the best out of everybody.”

The Georgian striker didn’t sulk over the early season demotion, and on Wednesday night, his dominating performance was feted by the Avaya Stadium faithful as he put in his best game since last summer. Vako is a singular talent, to be sure, but his effectiveness only increases when he plays the team game Almeyda demands.

“He played a great game tonight and is playing well overall,” Almeyda said. “In Vako, I want a player that is reversible. He’ll play not only when he receives the ball, but also to assist his teammates when it comes time to defend. He can do that; it’s proven that he can, and he will keep doing that.”

On the wall above the entrance to the Quakes locker room remains a saying that goes back to the Frank Yallop championship seasons — “Eleven Playing as One” — and Almeyda has this squad believing that message once again. The collective effort to support the team’s offense also extends to securing the back line, and on Wednesday, San Jose earned its fourth shutout of the season. Goalkeeper Daniel Vega will get credit for the clean sheet, though he only had to make one save on the night. He knows the accolades go to everyone in Black and Blue.

“It’s part of the union, we have to be together,” Vega said. “Three points is the best thing you can get in soccer. It’s a sport where you have to be together; there’s no other way to win games. Today we had Vako playing an amazing game, but we helped him to be amazing today. That is part of soccer. We don’t win games because of the individuals. We have to be together if we want to win big things.”

The Earthquakes are riding high on their streak of success, and rising above the playoffs line in the West is a just reward for their progress. But with the second half of the season to come, and a big battle with rivals LA Galaxy on tap for this weekend, San Jose can’t afford to let up its momentum. The Western Conference is wide open heading into the summer, and a Cali Clasico victory is the only thing on the players’ and coaches’ minds.

“We need points, we are building something important,” Vega said. “The most important thing also is the way we are playing, and we have to keep playing the same way. Now I am happy that I didn’t concede any goals, but for me I don’t care about conceding goals. I’m a winner, I like to win games, I want three points.”

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