CenterLine Report: Return to D.C.

San Jose returns to the spot where it clinched a playoff berth in 2010

Last October, after a summer filled with improved play and exciting results, the San Jose Earthquakes embarked for the nation’s capital to face a struggling D.C. United team at venerable RFK Stadium. Firmly in the postseason conversation with just a handful of games left in the MLS season, the Quakes knew that a good result for them could be enough to clinch the first playoff berth in the rejuvenated franchise’s three-year history.

Against a team that had little to play for except the pride of retiring D.C. United legend Jaime Moreno, the Earthquakes rode the golden boot of Chris Wondolowski to a pair of goals and a 2-0 clean sheet victory. The recipe for success in the 2010 season was followed without fail, as Jon Busch and the defense locked up the opponent’s attackers while Wondo went to work notching yet another game winning goal. The result pushed the Earthquakes over the mythical postseason-ensuring point threshold of 40 in the MLS standings and left them waiting on the results of other games to learn if a playoff berth had finally been clinched.

And then, when a congratulatory phone call reached head coach Frank Yallop on the bus back to their hotel from RFK that other results went their way, he shared with his team the great news. Finally, the moment arrived when the Earthquakes could enjoy their season of hard work and determination. A jovial bus ride and follow-up celebrations marked how much the accomplishment meant to the entire club.

“That was a very good night for our organization and a very good night for our team,” shared defensive captain Jason Hernandez earlier this week. “It was a lot of hard work through the summer solidifying our spot in the playoffs and it was the first time since I’ve been with the Quakes that we were able to do so. The trip to D.C. last year will always be a great memory.”

Hernandez remains the longest tenured player on the Earthquakes roster, having been selected by the team in the Expansion Draft back in November 2007, and appreciated just how much effort was required to build the team back into a playoff contender.

“Last year there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into getting that playoff berth,” recalled Hernandez. “To get it was a goal realized and a dream come true for a lot of fans here and also for us as a team.”

Coach Yallop, who alongside general manager John Doyle, arrived in San Jose tasked with leading a club that had nothing more than a crest and a pair of championship trophies to its name. Doyle recalled how he had little more than a desk and a phone at his disposal leading up to the Expansion Draft, while Yallop remembered laying out his plans to build the team from scratch with those limited resources.

“The whole time since we’ve been back we have been fighting to make the playoffs,” said Yallop earlier this week when asked to recall last season’s playoffs-clinching trip to D.C. United. “To make it in year three with the start we had as a franchise with no players and no infrastructure, there were great feelings all around. I was really happy for all the guys, they were the ones who put in all the hard work, while I was proud to guide them.”

This weekend, the San Jose Earthquakes return to RFK Stadium to take on D.C. United, with the stakes still high as both teams try to build their postseason credentials. Sure, some of the luster has faded on the DC United franchise over the past couple of years, with their nadir being a bottom of the table finish last season. But with some new signings and the promotion of Ben Olsen to head coach, Major League Soccer’s most accomplished team has their sights set on a return to the postseason.

Going into this weekend’s round of matches, D.C. United are holding the last guaranteed playoff spot available to the Eastern Conference and are currently riding a five-game unbeaten streak. With an identical 4-4-4 regular season record to the Earthquakes, Hernandez knows that the Red-and-Black will present a much greater challenge this time around.

“Obviously this year is a different scenario and they have so many different players,” assessed Hernandez. “We will need to have that same mentality and drive this year with guys working hard for each other to get a good result at D.C.”

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