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San Jose Earthquakes reach midway point of MLS season in high gear

The surging Quakes have the best record over the last 10 games of any team in the Western Conference

San Jose Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski shows his appreciation to the record-setting 50,850 fans that showed their support at Stanford Stadium. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)

STANFORD, Calif. — After an impressive 3-0 win against the LA Galaxy in front of a Cali Clasico record crowd of 50,850 at Stanford Stadium, the San Jose Earthquakes reached the midway point of the MLS season playing their best soccer to date.

Almost forgotten is the first month of the campaign, when San Jose went 0-4 and suffered under a -12 goal differential. Since the start of April, the Quakes are 7-2-4 and have climbed the Western Conference table from the basement to fifth place, two points above the playoffs line with the second half of the season still ahead of them.

“Right now we are taking it one game at a time,” midfielder Shea Salinas said. “Obviously, our goal is to be above the playoff line, but I’d like us to keep moving up the table. We are a difficult team to play against, and we want to prove that every single night when we take the field. We’re not looking at where we want to be or the playoffs necessarily. We want to go out there and be tough to play against and control what we can control, and I think that will win us the games.”

Valeri “Vako” Qazaishivili scored the game winning goal for the Quakes in their 3-0 win over LA, but it was Salinas’ late strike that secured the three points. The Earthquakes are now 5-1-2 against the Galaxy all-time in the Cali Clasico at Stanford Stadium. In addition, San Jose finished the month of June with a 2-0-2 record, the first time they’ve finished a calendar month of at least four games undefeated since September 2013.

”It was a great match, and it’s always important to win,” head coach Matias Almeyda said. “We know have to stay on this path. We have improved and we should continue improving.”

Almeyda employed the same starting eleven that beat the Houston Dynamo 2-0 last Wednesday, in part because they were so effective against the then third place team in the West and the coach had a limited squad to work with given injuries and international call-ups. Salinas was one of those players missing, as the midfielder missed most of June recovering from injury.

“It felt great,” Salinas said. “I was out three weeks and was fortunate to watch us from the stands, and, man, we play good soccer, and we continued that tonight. It’s fun to watch, but it’s even more fun to be a part of the play.”

Salinas recorded his career-high fifth goal of the season and the 18th of his MLS career, surpassing all expectations of the recently turned 33-year-old in his 12th professional season. The always fit Salinas has experienced a renaissance — fans have dubbed it the “Salinassance” — under Almeyda, unleashed to play free on the flanks and take on opposing defenders at will, something that has impressed longtime teammate Tommy Thompson.

“Yeah, it was awesome to see him coming in on the sideline because I know how hard he’s worked coming back from the minor setback that he had and to see him come on the field and do what he does week in and week out was fun to watch,” Thompson said. “And you could feel it almost immediately when he came onto the field, he wanted that goal, and he got it. I’m excited for him, and I’m excited for this team.”

Salinas, the hero of the 2017 Cali Clasico with his late goal to beat the Galaxy at Stanford Stadium, received a rousing ovation when he stepped to the center line, ready to take the field as a substitute in the 75th minute. It was a moment the midfielder cherished and hopes to experience even more throughout the second half of the season.

“When you take the field and the fans start cheering and you score a goal and it’s so loud, you really feel the energy,” Salinas said. “It’s an awesome place to play and we really enjoy it. We want to fill up Avaya and have the same noise level there.”

Just as impressive as Salinas’ goal was Thompson’s individual effort that put the game to rest in the 85th minute. With Salinas providing the assist — the third time in his MLS career he has recorded both a goal and an assist in a game — Thompson dazzled the Galaxy defense with a skillful run from the right flank that took him into the area. He hooked a shot that may or may not have been goalbound, but following a fortunate deflection off Perry Kitchen, the ball nestled into the back of the net.

It was Thompson’s first MLS goal in front of the Earthquakes home crowd, and only his second career goal overall, and the sixth year midfielder celebrated with an epic fist pump before being mobbed by his teammates.

“Spur of the moment,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to think clearly in moments like that when there’s 50,000 people cheering and just as excited as you are.”

As the team’s number one right back, Thompson doesn’t always get such chances to run at defenders, so the opportunity was one he relished. His name is not a regular feature in the scoresheet, but his effect on the Cali Clasico, as it has been during the team’s recent run of success, was profound.

“It was a special moment for me,” Thompson said, “and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”

Thompson played as part of a back four that, along with goalkeeper Daniel Vega, posted its fifth clean sheet of the season and second in a row. The second place LA Galaxy had won three straight road games entering Stanford Stadium, but they left with nothing to show for their Bay Area visit. Centerback Florian Jungwirth, who neutralized Galaxy dangerman Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the night was especially pleased with the effort.

“A shutout is always a great result for the defense,” Jungwirth said. “I think we did a great job in the back, and the front guys, especially Judson, helped us out a lot. A shutout is always a great feeling for us.”

Vako’s early goal gave the Quakes the advantage, but it was a concerted defensive showing by Jungwirth, who earned Man of the Match honors for his lion tamer act, and the rest of the team that ensured the Quakes would take the full points at Stanford. It was a win that was celebrated by the players, the coaching staff, and everyone within the Quakes organization on hand to enjoy the evening.

“Very happy about our display, very happy for the people who were able to join us and for this organization,” Almeyda said. “Really, this was all marvelous and so was our triumph along with the team’s performance.”

The coach, who rewarded his players following the game and cutting short his locker room remarks before leading them back to the field to join their families in watching the big postgame fireworks display, praised his defense for its improvement week in and week out. He knew it would be easy to adapt to his demands initially, but he had faith this group of players would succeed with practice and dedication.

“We believe in hard work; we believe in this team,” Almeyda said. “From the moment we got here, we’ve believed in them and we will keep believing in them. All the merit goes to the players, who have done a great job understanding our plan.”

“It’s a new philosophy, a new way to defend, and it takes time,” Jungwirth added. “We saw that in the first four matches, but we always believed in it and now we trust in the system, we trust every player no matter who’s starting and that makes it easy. Like I said, the trust is the most important thing”

The scenes on the field as the players, their families, and the coaching and support staffs intermingled and enjoyed their Cali Clasico accomplishment was inspiring, and with others coming back from injury and international duty to reinforce the squad, the prospects for an even better second half of the season look bright. Written off in March, the Earthquakes look every part an MLS Cup contender.

“We have a lot of tough weeks coming up, so it’s important to have a good depth and not just 11 players,” Jungwirth said. “It’s crucial for the rest of the season that we have healthy guys ready to compete.”

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