The San Jose Earthquakes reached the NFL Cup Final Qualifiers on Sunday for the third time in 11 seasons by overcoming more challenges than most league teams.
Where to start with as earthquakes prepare to take on top-ranked Sporting Kansas City at 1 PM PDT.
San Jose (8-9-6) is the only Bay Area team to have their season paused and then restarted due to COVID-19.
This was the last MLS team to return to training after the initial campaign in mid-March because Santa Clara County was one of the strictest regions in the country in terms of permitting activities.
Earthquakes’ team training schedules were changed in August and September due to smoke from devastating California wildfires.
The squad had to face a tough Los Angeles FC squad with the playoffs on the line in a match rescheduled less than 24 hours before kick-off.
It didn’t end there.
In late May, assistant coach Benjamin Galindo suffered a stroke in Guadalajara, Mexico. The team announced that the former Mexican star had undergone brain surgery.
About a month later, defender Marcos Lopez, 20, underwent an appendectomy and missed the MLS Is Back Championship in Orlando.
By the end of August, midfielder Magnus Eriksson, turned captain, had returned to Sweden on a transfer.
A month later, the team announced that Dutch striker Danny Hossen had undergone surgery at the end of the season to repair torn deviated and adductor muscles.
A few weeks later, reports surfaced that Brazilian club Palmeiras wanted to sign COEX coach Matias Almeida, who spent another year on his contract in San Jose.
“You get over one obstacle, then there is another obstacle, then another,” said midfielder Jackson Yewell. “We tried to be as honest with ourselves as possible.”
Now the challenge will be on the field. Eighth-seeded Earthquakes will face the road against Sporting Kansas City (12-6-3), the regular season champions of the Western Conference, in Sunday’s match. Sporting finished the season 6-1-1 in their last eight matches.
But earthquakes also peaked, scoring 6-3-1 to finish the regular season.
They enter the Sunday singles shootout as a surprise. Not a lot of football analysts gave San Jose many chances to reach the playoffs because the management didn’t bring in many new players out of season.
But General Manager Jesse Fioranelli has been confirming that the Quakes team has taken important steps by hiring winger Christian Espinosa and defensive midfielder Goodson after they played on loan in 2019.
The COEX team also captured striker Andy Rios and winger Carlos Fierro in mid-season transfers last year.
These four players became influential players who embraced Almeida’s unconventional style of ball possession.
Earthquakes also stabilized defense when JT Marcinkowski, a local player from Concord-De La Salle High School, took over the goalkeeper position late in the season.
The shift began when earthquakes arrived early in Florida, as MLS created a “bubble” environment to protect everyone from the spread of COVID-19.
Team Quakes arrived in Florida before the other teams because Santa Clara County hadn’t yet allowed them to train at home. Players, coaches and staff have been away from their families for more than a month.
A preview of the team’s potential was shown in the MLS Tournament as San Jose advanced to the quarter-finals. At that time, they seemed to be able to defeat any opponent.
After that, earthquakes lost their momentum as the regular season resumed in August. The Quakes team suffered eight games in a row without a win as they edged out 28-7.
“One of the best things this year was a lot of hurdles, but all of those hurdles brought us closer as a team,” said Yuell.
The players regrouped, unlike last year when the team failed in the playoffs due to the collapse of the end of the season.
Sometime this year, Almeida said he wanted to end the season due to the stress caused by the global pandemic. But he expected a mostly positive outlook for players throughout 2020.
“This epidemic is claiming a lot of lives,” Almeida said. “I just ask the players to enjoy what they do. Football is a game. It’s not something to be overrated.”
It was anything but a smooth ride. San Jose has scored 51 goals in 23 games this regular season – five more than any other team this season. Quakes also conceded five or more goals in five matches versus a record for one season in MLS.
Captain Chris Wondolowski said the earthquakes showed resilience that was missing in previous seasons.
He said, “I’ve seen a few years of these years we’d just put it in.”
“For a man, he’s never wavered. This is the part we are most proud of.”
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