SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was a long time coming, but on Wednesday night at Avaya Stadium, the San Jose Earthquakes finally snapped their nearly six month long winless streak at home, beating conference leaders FC Dallas 4-3.
Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili scored twice for the Quakes, and Chris Wondolowski scored the game winning goal, the 40th of his MLS career, in the entertaining victory. San Jose’s shaky defense made the lead hold up, with Nick Lima making a goalmouth clearance in the dying seconds to secure all three points.
The game was in stark contrast to what transpired just a few days ago, when the Earthquakes lost their focus holding a 2-0 lead and collapsed 3-2 to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The win against Dallas, though not statistically dominating, was a rare moment in a rough season where luck finally favored the home side.
Mental toughness returns
The Quakes had last won at Avaya Stadium back on March 3, against Minnesota United in the season opener, and were carrying an MLS record 11-game winless streak at home into Wednesday’s contest. Another loss would have pushed San Jose to the brink of mathematical elimination from the MLS Cup playoffs with eight game remaining on the schedule.
But the players, still reeling from the weekend loss to the Whitecaps, were not willing to roll over for the Western Conference leaders. Their collective spirit had been damaged, but it was not beyond repair.
“Any time you step out there, you want to make the most of it,” Wondolowski said. “It was huge to get three points. I commend our team for its character. Sometimes when you’ve been beaten down so many times, you have a tendency to give up. Our guys could have given up many times, three times in this game, but they kept fighting, kept their heads up, and I am proud to be a part of this group.”
San Jose has rarely been played off the field this season, having lost by two or more goals only twice, but the team seemed to always find a way to come up short. Head coach Mikael Stahre, who maintains that the Quakes are not nearly as bad as their record might suggest, was pleased by the fight the team showed so soon after the demoralizing loss to Vancouver.
“We spoke about that,” Stahre said. “I wasn’t so worried about the game plan or the energy. I was more worried that in the game, you have to face difficulties, you have to deal with it, and we did that tonight. We came back after the first goal and then we conceded another goal in the second half just like we did against Vancouver. It was a mental challenge for sure and we handled it. Hopefully all of us benefit from it in the future.”
Another loss on Wednesday would have deepened the downward spiral the Earthquakes were experiencing, especially with a road game at the Whitecaps looming this weekend. Instead, San Jose finish the month of August with a non-losing record — 2 wins, 2 losses, 1 draw — the first time that’s happened all year.
“We knew that we had to believe that we can win,” Lima said. “We get in certain situations, and we have to react to them. We have to be proactive, and we have to come out on the front foot. We go down a goal, up a goal, whatever, we have react accordingly, and I think last week we weren’t doing that. It cost us in the end. This week, we wanted to dictate the play of the game, control it and put it in our hands. It went our way.”
The stark difference in player attitude from Saturday to Wednesday night did not go unnoticed, and whether it is a harbinger for a positive finish to the season remains to be seen. One thing is certain, the Quakes still need to find a consistency in their approach, especially mentally, to be able to string together some good results on a consistent basis.
“We’ve been kicked so many times,” Wondolowski said. “We talked about it this week that we have to put it behind us, to stay stronger, one goal does not make the game and there will always be chances. In the Vancouver game, when we were up 2-0, we let in that first goal and you saw heads drops, a little bit more nervousness. We were not playing our game, and in this league, where there is such a fine line between success and failure, you have to keep playing. Tonight, you saw that mental fortitude to stay strong and keep playing your game. The chances will come, and it was nice to put them away.”
One stop closer to the record
Wondolowski’s game winning goal, which moved him into a dead heat with Jeff Cunningham for second most all-time, was the 142nd of his career. The Quakes captain now sits three behind Landon Donovan for the most goals scored in MLS history, and with eight games remaining this season, stands a good chance of matching, perhaps surpassing, the legend in that time.
Getting his first start in six games certainly put in position to create more scoring opportunities, so a big part of whether Wondolowski sets the record this year depends on his role moving forward. Stahre indicated that Wondo and Danny Hoesen are still in competition to play at forward in the Quakes 4-2-3-1 formation, and that more squad rotation should be expected.
“It’s a hard competition between Danny and Wondo,” Stahre said. “It was hard to have him on the bench for a couple games and today we started him and kept Danny on the bench. Quite normal from my perspective.”
For the fans at Avaya Stadium that are still showing up, they gave Wondolowski the loudest ovation as the starting lineup was announced. His goal in the 62nd minute also elicited the biggest cheers of the night, and the captain’s vintage goal celebration intensity was on full display. Even among his teammates, there was appreciation for all Wondo brings to the team.
“Absolutely, he is closing in on most goals in MLS history,” Lima said. “It’s something special to watch him play and play with him. Having him on the field is definitely a motivation for us to perform better and help him out, as well as know that he is going to help us out.”
The questions of when he would break Donovan’s record began all the way back in preseason, but now that he is just a handful of goals away, Wondolowski is becoming more acutely aware of what the achievement signifies and the increased attention it is getting.
“A little bit,” Wondolowski said. “It’s a weird thing, it’s been talked about throughout the whole year. It’s still there. It’s still a bit surreal to even be this close so I have no idea. I’m hoping to get it.”
The man that will have a big say in that is Stahre, and he remained noncommittal about focusing the team on helping Wondo reach the milestone. The rookie MLS coach did, however, share a positive thought on whether he’ll be the record holder by season’s end.
“We’ll see,” Stahre said. “Hopefully.”
Doubling down on Dallas
The Earthquakes have only four wins all season, two against Minnesota United and two against FC Dallas. Fans would probably like to see a whole lot more games versus the two opponents, but MLS is not going to cater to that desire.
Still, it is curious how the last place team in the league has been able to find so much success against the West’s best. It is something that Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja was concerned about after the loss, as he tried to find an explanation for his side’s second loss to San Jose this month.
“It was a game with a lack of balance from our side,” Pareja said. “When you score three goals in an away game and you don’t get points, obviously something didn’t work well. And defensively, we did not play well, and that’s the cost of the game.”
On the other side of the ball, the Earthquakes played with a hint of extra confidence born from their 3-1 win in Frisco four weeks ago. And when the bounces started to go their way, it was just the lift they needed to compete.
“We know that they are good,” Lima said. “We know we have to play at the highest level to beat a team like that. It’s confidence, it’s playing as a unit and following the game plan. Now it’s two times in a row, and we have two good results against them.”
Wednesday’s game marked the first time in over a month that FCD scored three goals, yet the result was their gave them their third defeat in August. The loss to San Jose also served as the first time Dallas has conceded four goals in a game this season. For the Quakes, it was their best offensive output of 2018.
“It was crazy at points, especially in the second half,” Pareja said. “We score goals, we give away goals, and that’s the result. Maybe for their fans it was good, because there were a lot of goals scored, but from the coaching staff, it was not good.”
The seven goal outburst at Avaya Stadium was definitely a welcome sight for the home supporters, and with four more home remaining on the schedule, they’ll be clamoring for more such excitement. The players can feel that desire, and with some renewed confidence, plan to make that a reality.
“There was never any doubt among us,” Lima said. “After each goal, everyone on the team was trying to pick each other up. And it worked out pretty well, and in the end we got a good result, and that’s what we need to take to every game, every place we travel, and when we play every time at home.”
Given that they are realistically out of the playoffs chase, the Earthquakes have little else to play for this season but pride, so that’s exactly what they plan to do. They hope the fans will continue to back them up as they close out the 2018 campaign.
“I appreciate all the support the fans have given us throughout this whole year,” Wondolowski said. “It was a Wednesday night and we are a last place team, but there was a great atmosphere. I am proud to be a part of this organization. Credit to the fans for pushing through these tough times.”