SAN JOSE, Calif. — For the San Jose Earthquakes, who last October completed a stunning run to the postseason, this year’s MLS Decision Day will have little of the drama that marked the team’s season finale in 2017.
When Marco Urena scored in the third minute of stoppage time to give the Quakes a thrilling 3-2 victory over Minnesota United, propelling them to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the fans at Avaya Stadium celebrated as if the team had won MLS Cup. The year, as San Jose limps to its worst season in franchise season, the only celebration by supporters will be that the misery is finally over.
The Earthquakes head to Seattle for the final game of the campaign, facing a Sounders team that at the beginning of July was behind San Jose in the standings. Just over three months later, those same Sounders have an outside chance of finishing in the top-two in the Western Conference, while the Quakes have the worst record in all of MLS and have already clinched the far from coveted 2018 Wooden Spoon award.
The Quakes trained this week in preparation for the season’s last game with more purpose than a last-place team might be expected to show, and Pro Soccer USA was there to check in on some of the story-lines making news in San Jose.
Lima sets the standard
When it comes to determining the team’s Most Valuable Player of 2018, especially so much disappointment in the standings, the regular criteria for selection go out the window. Danny Hoesen, who leads the Quakes with 12 goals, was officially named MVP last week, but a strong case can be made for Nick Lima, the team’s iron-man.
After an injury limited his playing time in his rookie season, the second-year homegrown defender pledged to stay healthy in 2018 and make the biggest impact possible. So far, he’s backed up his words, having started every game this season — the only player on the roster to do so.
“It has everything to do with, you say it’s going to happen, but it’s making sure it happens,” Lima said. “We have a week left, and it’s only one game, but it is one game, and that’s been the mindset all year: one game at a time. Be healthy, each training and each day, and that takes you into the weekend. That was my goal from the beginning of the year.”
Three other players have also featured in 33 games so far this season — Hoesen, Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, and Chris Wondolowski — but none will finish with as many minutes played. If Lima stays on the field for the full 90 against the Sounders, he will finish 2018 with 3049 cumulative minutes — the only player to break the 3000 minute threshold this season.
“He’s been very important to us, and he’s been available,” interim head coach Steve Ralston said. “He takes great care of himself, and he trains well. He knows what he needs to do as a professional to make sure he is there for us to choose.”
Ralston has been impressed with Lima’s progress this season, but stated that he has yet to reach his ceiling as a defender. Lima, for his part, agrees with his coach, knowing that there’s always work to do to improve, and, despite being named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year, not letting himself get complacent in his approach to training.
The Quakes have conceded 69 goals this season — a number that Lima knows has played a big role in why the team has only four wins in 33 games — and he is already eyeing the off-season as a time to make the adjustments and changes to his own game that can improve on that performance. Lima was encouraged by the shutout San Jose posted in its home finale last weekend against Colorado, and he hopes the team can do the same in Seattle.
As far as what he can do as an individual, Lima deferred to the team’s ultimate goal of earning its first win since August 29, and its first three points on the road since beating FC Dallas earlier that same month. Still, with nothing left to lose, he shared, with a laugh, what he’ll hope to contribute to the scoresheet against the Sounders
“Shoot, let’s end it on a high note,” he said. “A win, a goal and an assist, and everything else I can do over 90 minutes.”
Patience pays off for Calvillo
In the 0-0 draw against the Rapids last Sunday, rookie Eric Calvillo earned his first MLS start, coming on the heels of his first appearance for San Jose in its prior game against the New York Red Bulls. It was a dream come true for the 20-year-old midfielder, but it also marked the first step of many he hopes to take in his professional career.
Calvillo had joined the Quakes in the off season after his former club, the New York Cosmos, ceased operations. The former U.S. youth international was named runner-up for the NASL’s Young Player of the Year award in 2017, and he arrived in San Jose with hopes of making an impact for the Earthquakes.
“To be sure,” he said. “I wanted to prove, not just to myself, but to everyone else around me that I can play in this league. I will always give 100% of myself to the team.”
He was aggressive from the outset against the Rapids, not afraid to make the tough pass or take on defenders in front of goal. And on an afternoon when Wondolowski was vying to break the MLS goal scoring record, Calvillo looked to feed the captain the ball, but also to attempt his own shots on goal. All in all, it was a successful first start, one that earned him an honorable mention for MLS Team of the Week.
“I honestly didn’t see it coming,” Calvillo said. “It was a shock to me. When I saw it first posted, I looked around to make sure it was true. I was surprised about it, but I was grateful too, and I hope there are more to come.”
Ralston was also impressed with the Palmdale, California native’s performance, though he wouldn’t say for certain that he’d earned another start this Sunday against the Sounders. Since the start of preseason, when then he was an assistant coach, Ralston has kept his eyes on Calvillo, impressed by the determination he has shown to get into the game-day 18.
“He’s a young player, and this is his first year in MLS,” Ralston said. “It took him a while to get used to it. He went to Reno, and that helped a lot. I’ve seen him getting better in training, played him in the practice games, and he stood out, so I wanted to give him a chance.”
Calvillo is no stranger to the competition for minutes, especially as one of the youngest members of the team, so he had no plans to hold back when Ralston gave him the nod against the Rapids. With a chance to makes it two starts in a row, he approached the week of training with the same hunger he’s had since the preseason.
“With the year that we’ve had, I wasn’t worried about making mistakes,” Calvillo said. “I just went out there doing what I know best. The season’s not over yet, and with the success of last weekend, I want more of that.”
No matter the result on Sunday, Calvillo will return from Seattle already looking ahead to an off-season during which he plans to seek out whatever training opportunities he can find. He is determined to play even more next season, and he hopes that incoming head coach Matias Almeyda will give him every chance to prove he belongs in the lineup.
“I’m very happy for these last couple games, and I wish I had more games left, but I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given,” he said. “I can’t wait for next year, I hope it can continue, and I just have to stay hungry for myself.”
Clean sheet for Marcinkowski
The Quakes will finish 2018 with the fewest shutouts in the league, and the lowest tally for the franchise since MLS began back in 1996. But that doesn’t matter too much to JT Marcinkowski, who earned the first clean sheet of his career in San Jose’s scoreless draw against Colorado.
“I am happy getting a result, especially at home, but it would be cool to get the win,” he said.
He shared the field at Avaya Stadium with opposing goalkeeper Tim Howard, a legend of the game and a player Marcinkowski looks up to, and he relished every moment. The two met at midfield after the game to share congratulations on the shared shutouts, a moment that meant a lot to the rookie goalkeeper.
This week, he stands to make the start against the Sounders, a team that regularly plays in front of one of largest crowds in MLS. The 21-year-old is not intimidating by the prospect; rather, he can’t wait to take on the challenge that is Nicolas Lodeiro and Seattle’s potent offense.
“Whenever there’s a big crowd, it makes the game more fun,” he said. “It’s kind of what you play for, to play in those environments, and that amount of fans.”
He is also hoping the Quakes can break their seven-game winless streak and take all three points from Seattle. Such a win would do a lot to boost the spirits of the Earthquakes, while it would likely push the Sounders down the standings, possibly to fifth place, where they would have to go on the road to open the MLS Cup playoffs.
“Since it’s the end of the season, it is really important for us to finish on a winning note, and try to spoil Seattle’s plans for the playoffs,” Marcinkowski said. “We want to play the role of the spoiler.”
Reno’s USL playoff run continues
The Earthquakes’ USL affiliate, Reno 1868 FC, took to the road last weekend and beat Real Monarchs 1-0 to advance to the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs. Midfielder Chris Wehan and goalkeeper Matt Bersano started the game for Reno, and both are likely to get the nod again when Reno travels to Orange County SC to play this Saturday.
Head coach Ian Russell has made good use of the Quakes players made available to him, and Ralston indicated that he’ll send additional reinforcements his way for Reno’s big clash in Southern California.
“It’s good for all parties to play in that atmosphere, especially in a playoff game,” he said. “I know Ian would like to have some help as well, and it will depend on our needs here. Some guys will definitely go play.”
Calvillo has featured for Reno at times this season, as has Marcinkowski, though both players are expected to stay with the first team this weekend. Marcinkowski, who made great strides in goal during his time with the Quakes affiliate, has been watching the USL side carefully in recent weeks.
“I’ve talked to many of the guys, and, obviously, Reno holds a special place in my heart, playing over 20 games for them this year,” he said. “I’m super happy for them. They deserve it.”
Marcinkowski started for Reno against Orange County earlier this season, and he is confident Bersano and the boys have what it takes to beat the number one seed in the West.
“They have a really good shot against OC after getting a result the last game of the season,” he said. “But also, we went there earlier in the season and played pretty well, so we kind of know what to expect from them. They have a really good chance to keep dancing.”
Reno’s game at Orange County kicks off at 7:00 p.m. Saturday evening and can be viewed on ESPN+, and the Quakes, who will already be up in Seattle preparing for their own game on Sunday, will be watching.
Earthquakes vs. Sounders Match Information:
When: October 28, 1:30 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA.
Broadcast: NBC Sports California, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: ESPN+
Earthquakes injury report: Out: Kevin Partida (knee surgery); Jahmir Hyka (facial surgery); Jacob Akanyirige (head injury).