CenterLine Report: Setting the stage for Saturday

CenterLineSoccer.com's Robert Jonas reminisces his Nov. 4, 2010 experience

When Major League Soccer finally announced the complete 2011 regular season schedule back on February 10, I hurriedly rushed through the listings to find the date for the Earthquakes away game against the New York Red Bulls.

Hoping for a summer contest that would allow me to travel to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, I didn’t need to read too far down the list to find San Jose heading east in just their second road game of the season. In a rematch of their 2010 MLS Cup Eastern Conference Semifinal 3-1 victory, the San Jose Earthquakes face the Red Bulls this Saturday, April 16 at 4:30 p.m. PT on MLS Direct Kick.

I knew this game was going to be a big deal even before the season began, and that was confirmed this week when, within hours of the Toronto FC game’s final whistle, I was barraged with comments, questions, and good natured taunting from my many soccer friends in the Big Apple. On the journalistic front, I went on the Seeing Red NY show to let Red Bulls fans know just what to expect this weekend from San Jose. Prominent New York sportswriters Jack Bell of The New York Times and Michael Lewis of Big Apple Soccer joined me in conversation talking about the weekend’s match-up and what it means to the Red Bulls organization. Above all, my interactions with Earthquakes’ fans here at home were filled with excitement and reminiscing on that fabulous playoff game last November.

When I think back to last season, the Earthquakes’ two trips to New York were some of the most pivotal of the season. On August 28, the Quakes made their inaugural visit to the new Red Bull Arena fresh off an exciting 1-0 win against the L.A. Galaxy at Buck Shaw Stadium. The team was riding high and seemed set to make the late summer push necessary to propel them into the rank of MLS contenders. Instead, the Quakes were blitzed by the high-flying Red Bulls and their prized DP signing, Thierry Henry, scored his first MLS goal. Rather than dwell on the loss, the Earthquakes returned to San Jose and with a renewed vigor went on to lose just once in their next seven matches and clinch a playoff spot on October 9th against DC United. As the regular season wound down and the playoff match-ups began to take shape, none other than the New York Red Bulls emerged as the opponent for the Earthquakes first visit to the MLS postseason since 2005.

With the first round of the playoffs being a home-and-away aggregate goal series, the Earthquakes hosted the Red Bulls in game one with a chance to show the Eastern Conference’s best team that their de-facto path to the MLS Cup Final would not go unchallenged. A raucous crowd and energized squad stood up to New York in front of the ESPN cameras and a national television audience that Saturday night, and still the Red Bulls somehow escaped with a 1-0 victory. The players had left it all on the field at Buck Shaw Stadium and now faced the daunting task of returning to Red Bull Arena a goal down.

For the second time in 2010, the Earthquakes tasted defeat at the hands of the Red Bulls, and for the second time they did not hang their heads or mutter about what could have been. The team rallied together that weekend and into the following week as they trained ahead of the trip to New Jersey. From Chris Wondolowski up top to Jon Busch in goal, the players were hungry in their preparations to face New York. After all, San Jose had paved their path to the postseason with a stellar string of performances away from home, so there was no reason the team should fear the trip to Red Bull Arena.

Very few in the national MLS media were picking San Jose to reverse their fortunes and find victory against New York, so it was with some cautious optimism that I settled in at the Downtown Brit to follow along as the Earthquakes took the field at Red Bull Arena in the second leg of their playoff series. When you cover a team that you also have spent many years cheering on, it’s difficult to remain as impartial as the job requires. On that Thursday evening I put my press card to the side and joined the patio full of Quakes fans in cheering on the boys in blue-and-black.

With orders for appetizers still being filled in the kitchen, and my frosty glass of Boddingtons still filled nearly to the rim, the Quakes got things started with a fantastic finish from Bobby Convey barely five minutes into the game. The Brit erupted with an energy often reserved for the Buck, and chants of “We Believe!” rang through the crowd and out onto the street. That resolve I saw on the players’ faces earlier in the week at training was still there as clear as day on the high definition monitors that evening. Fans of all ages, decked out in their Quakes finest, began looking at one another with that “you know, we might just do this” expression.

As the match entered its final stanza, my glass of beer having been generously refilled a few times, Convey again got the crowd to its feet with a spectacular individual effort to improbably put the Earthquakes ahead. And even when the din lowered to absolute silence when Juan Pablo Angel equalized a minute later, no one was ready to give up. That MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski rose high in the air to head in the series-clinching goal just moments later seemed fitting for a team that might bend, but never break, in a stunning turn-around season after two years of tough finishes. With the clock running out on the Red Bulls and the Earthquakes gearing up for a celebration the likes not seen around the team since 2003, the crowd at the Brit yelled to the TVs, imploring the referee 2,932 miles away in New Jersey to blow his whistle. And when Mark Geiger obliged and thrust his hand in the air, the Quakes fans followed suit and reveled in the stunning victory for their side.

While the Earthquakes did go on to lose to the eventual MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids in the next playoff game, the memories of the upset victory over New York still remain strong for myself and other fans around San Jose. The game this Saturday is a rematch that has waited just five months to happen, and has been elevated in stature due to that November 4, 3-1 Earthquakes win. The Red Bull organization has made special note of this game as a chance to seek some measure of revenge for the Quakes unceremoniously dumping them from their rightful path to the MLS Cup Final.

Meanwhile, the Earthquakes players and coaches go about their business of preparing for another tough road challenge with a level of energy and emotion befitting their status of accomplished victor in this match-up. The calendar may still read April, but I am guessing for both sides this Saturday’s game will be played more like a postseason affair.

Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas