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San Jose Earthquakes road woes cast uncertainty on MLS Cup playoffs hopes

Upcoming games at NYCFC and Atlanta United will put the Quakes quest to make the postseason to the test.

Real Salt Lake were all over the San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday night during a strong second half. The Quakes dropped their fourth straight road game in losing 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium. (Rob Gray/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes lost to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night by a final score of 1-0. They were not outplayed at Rio Tinto Stadium by their hosts, but the Quakes couldn’t capitalize on their offensive opportunities, and they missed a golden opportunity to vault themselves into second place in a crowded Western Conference playoffs-chasing field.

It was a disappointing start to San Jose’s three-game road trip, which now heads to Yankee Stadium for a tilt against Eastern Conference leaders New York City FC this Saturday and ends next weekend at defending Major League Soccer champions Atlanta United. The Earthquakes will be heavy underdogs in both games.

“We have to take it like it comes,” defender Florian Jungwirth said following the loss to RSL, “but of course any time you lose, you’re angry and waiting seven days for another chance is a bit long. Especially now in this part of the season, it’s good to have a quick turnaround. We know it’s going to be a really, really hard one, but we’re convinced we can get all three points.”

NYCFC is the hottest team in MLS at the moment, unbeaten in six games with five wins and a draw. Their home field advantage is without question, as they boast a 9-1-5 record at Yankee Stadium this season, and the Quakes will need to step up their game to compete against the baby blues.

“Just the urgency,” Chris Wondolowski said about what the team needs to improve on after losing 1-0 on Wednesday. “I think that we are definitely a little frustrated. So, we want to go and I’m glad we have a game in three days to try to right the ship and get back in the win column.”

The Earthquakes have five games remaining this season, sit in fifth place in the West with a 13-11-5 record, and are potentially another loss away from dropping out of the top-seven in the conference and out of the playoffs race. Of course, a three-point haul in the Bronx could catapult them into second, behind only runaway leaders LAFC, and represent a huge step forward in their quest to qualify for the postseason.

It’s a cliche, to be sure, but with less than a month remaining in the 2019 regular season, every game matters.

Back in the friendly confines of Avaya Stadium, the Quakes are world beaters, unbeaten in their last 12 games, rocketing up the MLS Power Rankings with every victory, including two in a row to complete their last homestand. That prowess has earned them the label of this season’s MLS darlings, as Matias Almeyda’s men look unstoppable in San Jose, the second-best team in the conference.

But on the road, that shine quickly tarnishes, and for four straight games, even though they left everything they had on the field, the Quakes left every point available to their opponents. Away from Avaya, San Jose is simply second-best on the night, and it’s become worrisome to the Earthquakes playoffs hopes.

Of the Quakes five remaining games, only two are at home, and, according to the matchday odds published by fivethirtyeight.com, those are the only two games left on the schedule they are favored to win.

at NYCFC: odds the Earthquakes win 21%, tie 21%, lose 58%
at Atlanta United: W 18%, T 20%, L 62%
vs. Philadelphia Union: W 47%, T 22%, L 31%
vs. Seattle Sounders: W 53%, T 22%, L 25%
at Portland Timbers: W 26%, T 22%, L 53%

San Jose, essentially, controls its own playoffs destiny, but with only two games left against conference foes, the Quakes won’t often have the opportunity to knock other contenders down should they win. The proverbial six-pointers against Seattle and Portland to close out campaign will almost certainly be deciders, but it will be how the Earthquakes do in their next three games that determines whether they are deciding their playoffs seeding or their playoffs fate.

Very few people outside the inner circle of Quakes coaches and players even entertained the idea that making the postseason was a realistic goal, especially after the team stumbled out of the gate to open the season with four straight losses. But they believed in themselves, and dramatically, with Almeyda’s unorthodox playing system fully embraced and executed by the players, underperformers a year before, their rapid rise materialized. At this stage, it would be a disappointment to everyone in San Jose if the team does not make the playoffs.

Two years ago, the Earthquakes put together a late season push, culminating with a stoppage time goal by Marcos Urena in the season’s very last game, and qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since their 2012 Supporters’ Shield winning campaign. They celebrated the moment with champagne showers and a post-game dance party in front of their supporters the likes of which is usually reserved for a cup-winning triumph.

Perhaps, just happy to be in the playoffs, they were pummeled 5-0 by the Vancouver Whitecaps just days later in the opening round, the postseason over almost as quickly as it began. Many of the same faces from that evening at BC Place still feature for San Jose this season, and that lesson learned should serve them well should they make the playoffs in this campaign. But, again, that is still a big if.

So looking back at the schedule, and the recent disparity in results at and away from Avaya Stadium, and it is realistic to believe the Quakes will collect only 6 more points from their two home games. That would give them an even 50 points on the season, a historically good number for making the playoffs, and their 15 wins overall could be an advantage as such a measure is used as the first tie-breaker by MLS in determining a team’s overall finish when level with others on points.

But the Western Conference race is so tight, with just four points separating second-place RSL from eighth-place playoffs outsiders LA Galaxy, and it’s not clear 50 points and 15 wins together is truly is a safe target. If it isn’t, what is?

Looking at the schedules of the other six contenders (Sporting Kansas City is only six points away from qualification, but they’d need two teams above them to slide for them to make the playoffs, so, for now, they’re out) and counting two more wins for the Quakes, San Jose’s prospects look promising if results go as predicted by fivethirtyeight.com. Each of those six conference rivals final season’s tally, going with the odds, looks like the following:

2. Portland Timbers — 18-12-4, 58 points
3. Real Salt Lake — 17-13-4, 55 points
4. Seattle Sounders — 16-11-7, 55 points
5. LA Galaxy — 16-15-3, 51 points
6. Minnesota United — 15-13-6, 51 points
7. San Jose Earthquakes — 15-14-5, 50 points
8. FC Dallas — 14-13-7, 49 points

Of course, MLS wouldn’t be MLS without the game-to-game uncertainty that comes from a league built, in part, on the principles of parity, and the published odds clearly favor the home side in almost every contest involving the playoffs hopefuls. Some variance due to uncertainties related to momentum, injuries, and refereeing will undoubtedly surface, and the above predictions excluded the possibility of any ties.

Still, two more wins, both at home, would give San Jose the seventh seed by these predictions. If the Earthquakes want to guarantee themselves a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs, then taking care of business at home and on the road will put them in the driver’s seat. A statement win at NYCFC or Atlantic would be a huge step in that direction.

And should San Jose do even better in their remaining away games, the prospects of hosting a first-round playoff game increase too. Seeds two through four host seeds six through seven to start the postseason, with the winner of four versus five then facing LAFC in the conference semifinals. If the Quakes can reach second or third place in the conference, they might get two home games and avoid having to face the conference leaders until the finals

The 2019 Quakes will not simply be happy just making the playoffs. As captain Wondolowski said before the season even began, without a hint of a snicker at what then sounded absurd, his goal is to finish the year lifting a trophy. That resolve and determination, from everyone in Black and Blue, will now be put to the test.

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