SAN JOSE, Calif. — After three straight losses in league play, the San Jose Earthquakes could be excused for looking past Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup fourth round game against the Portland Timbers. After all, with two home games in the next week coming up on the MLS schedule, the Quakes need all the preparation time they can get to snap their four-game winless streak.
Instead, the midweek match at Providence Park provides the perfect platform to play through the previous poor performances and conjure up some confidence ahead of games against LAFC and the New England Revolution.
“Everything is a challenge right now, obviously,” Earthquakes head coach Mikael Stahre told Pro Soccer USA. “We have a really busy schedule. Obviously, it starts with a very interesting Cup game Wednesday in Portland and we will take this game really serious, of course. It’s a great chance to advance to the next round.”
As a newcomer to MLS, Stahre will be leading a team into the Open Cup tournament for the first time, though the veteran manager is no stranger to coaching clubs in domestic cup competitions. And like many of his league contemporaries, he is planning to make adjustments to his starting lineup, giving some players the chance to play that have otherwise been inactive this season.
“We will see exactly what kind of lineup we should use, but we will make some changes,” Stahre said. “We will still put a strong team in that game, that is for sure.”
Last year, the Quakes made a stirring run to the Open Cup semifinal round, where they lost to eventual champions Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks. It was relatively uncharted territory for San Jose — the club had only once before made it as deep in the annual tournament, contested since 1914 — and many of the players on the squad are hoping to improve on the results and get to the final this year.
“We are preparing the best we can to play in all five games of the Open Cup and win them all,” goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell told Pro Soccer USA. “That is how we were are preparing for it: we are going to Portland to win.”
The Open Cup is often a proving ground for players further down on the depth chart, and Tarbell knows firsthand the benefit of getting playing time in such a series of high-pressure games. Last year, he was the backup goalkeeper to David Bingham, and his only MLS minutes came in a second-half appearance against the Columbus Crew in 2016, his rookie season.
But when he was tabbed to start between the sticks in the Quakes’ 2017 tournament opener, he responded with 2-0 shutout victory over the San Francisco Deltas on the NASL. And three days later — when the dust settled on their 1-1 semifinal loss in PKs to Sporting KC, a game in which he withstood a relentless attack from the hosts at Children’s Mercy Park — he was anointed as San Jose’s starting MLS goalkeeper.
“Yeah, I was really grateful to get the opportunity to play in the tournament last year, against MLS teams, at MLS stadiums,” Tarbell said. “It’s a real game; there’s no such thing as friendlies. Cup games can be even tougher because there has to be a winner, and there’s extra time and penalties and other factors you have to deal with.”
Another player who benefited greatly from the Open Cup run last year was Jackson Yueill, who started all four games for the Earthquakes after spending most of the spring on loan to USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC. A first-round selection by San Jose in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Yueill was a promising young rookie who took full advantage of his debut for the Black and Blue, scoring four minutes into the game against the Deltas and setting the tempo in the midfield for the full 90 minutes.
“I love the Open Cup, obviously, and I was happy to get the opportunity to play,” Yueill told Pro Soccer USA. “It was nice to score my first goal and make a good run in the tournament.”
Like Tarbell, Yueill parlayed his tournament experience into more playing time with the first team. He made 13 regular season appearances in 2017, as well as one off the bench in the MLS Cup playoffs. This year, he has been in and out of Stahre’s starting lineup, and he hopes the game against the Timbers can provide a spark to him and his teammates to earn a much-needed win.
“With the slump we are going through, it will be nice to play something different, a tournament style game to see if it can shake us out of our slump and get us ready for the league,” Yueill said. “Right now, we can take our minds off that and focus on this game.”
The Earthquakes matchday 18 will feature a mix of new and familiar faces. In addition to players like Tarbell and Yueill, Stahre is expected to include others who have not been mainstays in the first team, such as Joel Qwiberg and Francois Affolter, as well as regular bench players Quincy Amarikwa, Jahmir Hyka, and Tommy Thompson. Possibly in the mix to make their Quakes debuts are rookie Mohamed Thiaw and first-year midfielder Eric Calvillo, both recently featuring for Reno on loan.
“It’s going to be a battle in Portland, we know that, just like a regular season game,” Tarbell said. “For anyone thrown into the fire, whether it is their first time playing or a guy getting an opportunity, it’s a time to show what you can do.”
If the Quakes top the Timbers, they will move forward to the Round of 16, where they will play the winner of the fourth-round game between Sacramento Republic FC and the Seattle Sounders. Advancing in the tournament will certainly add to San Jose’s already busy schedule, but for a team in need of a shot of success, the Cup might just be the right place to find it.