SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was tempting to call it a proverbial trap game for the San Jose Earthquakes, as struggling FC Cincinnati arrived at Avaya Stadium this weekend riding a four-game losing streak, shut out in every contest.
But the Quakes, themselves having suffered their own streak of futility earlier in the season, were not going to take any opponent lightly, not with the prospects of climbing above the playoffs line in the Western Conference with a win. Instead, they dominated the game against the expansion side from the opening whistle, pinning Cincy back in a purely defensive formation.
The expansion side looked rudderless, without a tactical vision of how to deal with San Jose’s relentless style of play. And when Nick Lima scored midway through the first half, it all but appeared that the hosts would cruise to a comfortable victory.
A red card to Cristian Espinoza shook the Quakes from their comfort zone, and left rueing the missed scoring opportunities from earlier in the game, they rallied behind the cause and buckled down to protect their one goal lead.
Some inspired defending, and a key save from goalkeeper Daniel Vega, saw the Earthquakes survive the challenge of playing a man down for nearly the entire second half, and in front of an appreciate crowd of 16,743, they celebrated their third straight home victory — one more than had in total all of last season — at the final whistle.
San Jose next takes to the road where they will face the New England Revolution, the last place team out East. The Quakes are brimming with confidence after dispatching FC Cincinnati, and they’ll be looking for their first win away from Avaya Stadium this season in Saturday’s game in Foxboro.
The positive takes from San Jose’s 1-0 victory over FCC are many, and they go a long way to explaining how a team that started the season 0-4-0 is now a contender to make the MLS Cup playoffs in the West.
Improv at Earthquakes Way
The Quakes leading scorer this season is Shea Salinas, but his finishing touch was off against Cincinnati. Forward Danny Hoesen also struggled to find his game, especially with hulking centerback Kendall Waston neutralizing his every move. Espinoza, prior to his ejection, was often neutralized by the defense-minded visitors, making it tough on all three frontline players.
Someone else needed to step it up, so head coach Matias Almeyda called for a designed play on a corner kick opportunity that would give Magnus Eriksson the time and space he needed to test Cincy goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton and finally give the Quakes a shot on target. The sequence started as planned until Lima intervened.
“No, the play was supposed to end up a different way,” Almeyda said, adding with a laugh, “but sometimes the players invent and it works out well. It was designed for Magnus, but Nick got in the way, and it was excellent.”
Lima, who had scored a thunderous goal earlier in the season that was called back for offside, saw another chance to get his first goal of 2019 when, in an advanced position on the corner kick, seized on a pass that was intended for his teammate. He did not hesitate to take advantage of the view he had.
“A lot of guys marked at the back post and an open lane to shoot,” he said. “We do that at practice every day, shooting from outside the box and today it paid off.”
A was a glorious act of improvisation by the defender, and he pumped his first emphatically as the ball hit the back of the net. Eriksson, for his part, the intended target, shook Lima’s hand at the end of the celebration, bowing and smiling with his teammate. It was a deserved “Bravo!” moment for Lima, the man of the match for San Jose.
Rallying after the red card
The Quakes picked up three yellow cards in the first half, all deserved given the physical level of the game and the limits set by referee Dave Ganter. Espinoza’s first yellow card was in service of the team as it had just botched a corner kick opportunity and nearly gifted Cincinnati an uncontested counterattack. The winger made the tactical decision to foul Kenny Saief to prevent the fast break.
Espinoza again was put in a difficult situation early in the second half, and though carrying a yellow, he again impeded a Cincy attack, obligating Ganter to show him a second yellow card. With the Quakes nursing a 1-0 lead and nearly 40 minutes left on the clock, the ejection could have spelled disaster. Almeyda shared in his postgame comments that the team doesn’t train to play a man down, and the players on the field had to manage on the fly.
“I felt proud of the team,” Almeyda said. “We were able to defend, which can be very hard in football, and preserve our goal and defend our victory. So it showing of character and our peak commitment when a player is out. When you are one or two players down, you show commitment.”
For Jackson Yueill, who is playing the best soccer of his MLS career under Almeyda, the task was simple: keep dictating the pace of the game and make Cincinnati work for every ball. It would require some sacrifice in developing any attacking sequences, but it would keep the visitors from gaining any momentum in possession.
“We were just saying to win our battles,” Yueill said. “Each person needed to do their job, and everything will fall into place after that.”
The strategy worked, and even when FCC brought in more attacking firepower, the Quakes defense responded with its own inspirational response. Players didn’t wait to do what they were told, nor did they simply reactive to what Cincinnati presented them. The Earthquakes played with the same confidence a man down as they had when on level terms, both on set pieces and during the run of play.
“We had to keep talking,” Lima said. “We had to be aware of their runners. They were putting extra guys forward with the man advantage and we had to be quick to the second balls and win aerial attacks against a tough opponent that is very strong in the air.”
The Quakes hung on and played organized, focused soccer in the face of Cincy’s comeback attempt. This was a major step forward in the team’s development, especially with the expectations required by Almeyda’s tactics, and it will be a performance to grow on.
Next Saturday, that growth will move forward with Espinoza, however, as the Earthquakes midfielder will be suspended for the game against the Revolution. The coach saw the sending off as bittersweet on an evening of victory, especially given the significance of the day prior for Espinoza.
“In the moment that he was sent off I thought about him a lot,” Almeyda said. “Today was a very special day for him. Yesterday he became a father, and he should have celebrated in a different way.”
Almeyda had delivered the news to some laughter, himself smiling at the contradiction in events. He expects the team will miss Espinoza’s influence in the lineup in New England, but he is confident a teammate will step up in training and take his place. When asked if perhaps Espinoza had engineered the ejection so that he could spend more time with his family, Almeyda chuckled, then answered in perfect English, “Yes, one weekend.”
Raising the bar
Last season was a disaster of many levels for the Earthquakes, as the team set numerous franchise records for futility. One especially egregious mark was the lack of defensive stands, as San Jose posted only two clean sheets in 34 games. Coupled with their scoreless draw at FC Dallas last week, the Quakes have posted back-to-back shutouts since May 2017.
Such results don’t come without their moments, and the Earthquakes got one of those courtesy of Vega, who made a spectacular save in the 75th minute to deny former San Jose midfielder Fatai Alashe an equalizing goal.
“I saw the ball coming, and it was a reaction,” Vega said. “It was good and it made me happy because we didn’t concede any goals and the team won.”
Vega’s modest response was expected, as the goalkeeper rarely looks to take the spotlight. He spoke about preparing for Cincinnati, a team that tends to sit back on defense and look for its chances on the counter. Vega knew he had to be ready for that one chance the visitors would get, and fortunately for the Quakes he handled it with aplomb.
“Vega has played unreal,” Yueill said. “He has made some key saves for us that have kept us in these games, and so when we see that, it gives a boost to everyone. The culture in the team is very good right now.”
Florian Jungwirth, whose introduction at centerback in game five of the season for the injured Guram Kashia has coincided with the Earthquakes’ six-game run of success, was not at all surprised by Vega’s performance. The two share adjacent lockers, and Jungwirth couldn’t resist overly praising Vega, seated next to him, jokingly asking the goalkeeper for $10 to share such accolades with the advancing media throng.
The always convivial Jungwirth then turned serious in his account of Vega, new to the Earthquakes this season and a vital part of the makeover Almeyda has asked of his squad, adding that the shutouts were no accident.
“We know that Danny is an excellent goalkeeper, and we are really happy to have him,” Jungwirth said. “Another clean sheet is always a great feeling.”
The goalkeeper responded in kind, again deflecting any attention on his personal exploits, and sharing the success of the evening with his teammates. He wasn’t very busy against Cincinnati, and he credited the players for keeping it that way.
“After the red card, the effort was unbelievable,” Vega said. “To see the guys moving and running to protect the goal. We have the team to win these types of games.”
The Earthquakes are definitely feeling better about their circumstances, and waking up Sunday morning to see their name above the playoffs line in the West will only serve as motivation to keep their momentum escalating. There’s still plenty of season left to go, but the Quakes like the direction in which they are moving.