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Quakes Takes: Fourth straight win lifts San Jose Earthquakes into fourth place in West

Colorado Rapids the latest victims of Matias Almeyda’s unconventional high-energy game plan

Tommy Thompson is enjoying his best season yet as the San Jose Earthquakes surge ahead in the Western Conference standings. (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes are feeling good about themselves, and so far this summer, there’s been little in their way as they march up the Western Conference table.

On Saturday, the Quakes hosted the Colorado Rapids at Avaya Stadium and delivered another comprehensive performance against the West’s cellar dwellers. An early own-goal set the tone, as San Jose never looked unsettled in earning a 3-1 win, their fourth in a row and sixth in the past seven games.

The Earthquakes have been the talk of the Bay Area of late, garnering attention in the local papers and attracted new and old fans to the stadium. Their play has been dynamic and entertaining, and if their momentum continues, a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs will be the reward come October.

From the front office to the coaching staff to the locker room, there’s joy in San Jose, but everyone’s also acutely aware that there’s plenty left to do this season. Collecting three points at home against a side like Colorado is the new expectation, and these Quakes know the best is yet to come.

Almeyda’s game plan works to perfection

In his midweek press conference, head coach Matias Almeyda made it clear that he and his coaching staff were carefully analyzing the Rapids, looking for the weaknesses that could be exploited. They had anticipated the visitors would elect to focus on defense and isolate attacking players like Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili and Crisitan Espinoza away from the broader San Jose offense.

An own goal by Colorado scuppered some of that strategy, but the plan to disrupt the Quakes typical direct attack kept the game close in the opening half hour. Vako, especially, was pretty much a non-factor, so Almeyda countered with his own adjustments, and the moves immediately paid dividends.

Following some all-star level commitment to possession by Nick Lima in the face of heavy defensive pressure, the Quakes left back finally wriggled free to deliver a ball to Vako in an advanced position. The Georgian midfielder danced into the area, put the moves on Keegan Rosenberry to shake loose of his marker, and curled in a beautiful effort for San Jose’s second goal of the night.

Vako’s goal, his sixth in seven matches, proved to be the game-winner, and it brought into crystal-clear focus how the level of detail Almeyda and his staff bring to game preparation has catalyzed the Earthquakes big turnaround since March. They are now 10-2-4 in their last 16 MLS regular season games, 6-1-0 in their last seven.

“We knew were facing a difficult opponent,” Almeyda said. “We found out that the match could be played how it was. By fortune and a great game, we were able to take the advantage through combinations and control. From there, the match became different. By controlling the match, being alert on counter attacks, they can do damage in their aerial play, but we had that under control. I am pleased by the players’ performance in their roles.”

The Quakes had only 17 shots on the night, well below the 32 they posted in their last two games, but it was more than enough against a Rapids side that had little effect going forward. Instead of storming the gates, the Earthquakes patient style of play, creating combination passing through the midfield and defense lines, forced the visitors to eventually chase the game. By then, it was too late.

Sights now set on a top-four finish

San Jose has won four consecutive matches for just the second time since reentering the league back in 2008, and with an overall record of 11-7-4 this season now sit in fourth place in the Western Conference. The Quakes, with 37 points, are level with third-place LA Galaxy, but the rivals are ahead on the wins tiebreaker. Both teams find themselves just one point behind second-place Seattle Sounders. Everyone is chasing runaway leaders LAFC, the presumptive Supporters’ Shield favorites.

With the new format adopted in 2019 for the MLS Cup Playoffs, finishing in positions 2-4 guarantees a home game in the first round, a single elimination match against those teams reaching 5-7. The Quakes last playoffs appearance, in the wildcard round back in 2017, was contested on the road in Vancouver, and the Whitecaps cruised to a lopsided 5-0 victory. Securing a game at Avaya Stadium this time around could prove highly advantageous.

“Every game is important in this playoffs push we will be having in the coming months,” midfielder Tommy Thompson said. “We are working as hard as ever, and it shows on the field. We want more and everybody in this locker room believes we can achieve a lot this year, and we still haven’t shown our best, so I’m excited for what’s to come.”

Thompson has been a crucial part of the Quakes resurgence, manning the right back position with aplomb and partnering with Espinoza to create a formidable attacking duo along that sideline. Their interplay to start the game against Colorado directly lead to the own goal, scored just 71 seconds into the game, the fastest goal credited to San Jose since Avaya Stadium opened in 2015.

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to play professional soccer since I was 18 years old, but to have this stretch that we’ve been on, it’s been special to be a part of,” Thompson said. “I think it’s a testament to how great Matias is as a head coach and it’s also a testament to the quality that we have in this locker room. It’s been amazing to be a part of this and I think we’re just getting started.”

Another key contributor has been Shea Salinas, who is enjoying his best offensive season in his 12-year MLS career. The left-side attacker put the game on ice with a spectacular effort in the 83rd minute, cutting through the penalty area and outlasting a Rapids defense that had no answer to his dribbling display. It was his sixth goal of the season and 18th of his MLS career, doubling his previous career-high of three goals in a single season set back in 2015. The veteran gave credit to the coaching staff for keeping the team’s spirits high, even when early results did not go their way. He knows that belief will serve the Quakes well as they look to keep climbing up the Western Conference standings.

“Preseason, we had a lot of confidence,” Salinas said. “After those first four games, I don’t know if we did, but what hasn’t changed is our coaching staff’s belief in us. Our staff seemed to always know that we were going to turn this around. It just took us to start believing it. I think now we do and we just want to keep climbing, we just want to keep catching the teams in front of us. We don’t even really think about the teams behind us.”

Avaya Stadium a fortress once again

The comfortable 3-1 win over the Rapids extends the Quakes home unbeaten streak to nine (8-0-1), with all but the Cali Clasico win at Stanford achieved at Avaya Stadium. San Jose has outscored opponents 23-5 in that span, adding five shutouts. The announced attendance of 17,762 was a high water mark for the team during their recent run of success.

“That was the most full I’ve seen Avaya Stadium in a long time, so to see the community respond to our success is all the more motivating, because they have been through a lot,” Thompson said. “But they’ve been right there with us all last year, and to give them what they deserve is a special feeling, so I am excited for this entire city.”

The fans showed up early, overwhelming the ticket office and creating long lines outside the stadium gates. When everyone was able to get in, they were large in numbers and loud in sound throughout the stands. Even the crowd around the scoreboard bar were multiple people deep. There was a tangible sense of optimism and excitement from the fanbase that had been missing for a long time.

The support was felt on the field too, but for many of the players the motivation to succeed, to put the poor results of the past behind them, comes more from within than from the stands. That’s not to say the increased support is unappreciated; rather, it is a welcome addition to the atmosphere at Avaya Stadium.

“To us, it’s exciting that the fans are coming back, but we are out there playing for each other,” Salinas said. “We’re out there fighting for the guys that are in this locker room. I know as a fan it’s more entertaining right now and we are winning, so I’m thankful they are coming back, but we’re not out there trying to win fans. We are playing for each other.”

Eleven players on the field, and nearly 18,000 in the stands alongside them, playing as one as the Earthquakes look to continue their push to the MLS Cup playoffs.

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