CenterLine Report: Winning ways lead to a winning record
The First Law of Holes is a well-known proverb that has saved many a person from exacerbating a situation beyond his or her control. It simply states: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Earlier this season, centered in the spotlight of expectations born from the club’s previous successful campaign, the San Jose Earthquakes sprinted out of the gate to a solid 2-1-1 record in their first four games. A pair of comfortable wins at home and a solid road draw at Columbus pushed the 2013 Quakes to a better-than .500 record. Supporters’ Shield winners the year before, San Jose looked set to compete for the best record in MLS for a second successive season.
And then, for a variety of reasons — injuries, suspensions, and national team call-ups to key players on the roster — the Quakes drifted off the pace and slowly dug themselves a hole in the Western Conference standings. By the time June rolled around, San Jose found itself separated by MLS bedrock by only lowly Chivas USA. The digging had to stop.
Following a June 1 loss at Real Salt Lake — a 3-0 shellacking and second loss of the season to the Utah club — then head coach Frank Yallop and the Earthquakes parted ways. The up-tempo offensive style of play that had led to a franchise-record 72 goals in 2012 had amassed a meager 13 tallies through 15 matches, and the Quakes record stood at a cringe-worthy 3-6-6. Shovels were confiscated, and the team regrouped around interim head coach Mark Watson.
Watson delivered in his first game in a charge — a 2-1 nail-biter at the Colorado Rapids — remaking the Earthquakes as a more defensive-minded group. The free-wheeling wingers and fullbacks were reigned in, and the defensive spine was instructed to keep order along the back line. The club signed U.S. international center back Clarence Goodson and English veteran Jordan Stewart. Watson reshaped the tactical set-up to prevent the types of defensive breakdowns that had plagued the Quakes earlier in the season.
A “never-say-die” 3-2 comeback victory over the LA Galaxy to close out June reminded everyone that San Jose was not down for count. The Earthquakes nearly halved the number of goals they gave up in the second 15 games of the season as compared to the first 15, and they posted an impressive 8-5-2 record over that span to reach the .500 mark. The only digging going on in San Jose was over at the new stadium site.
As the hole from the first half of the season has been backfilled, the Earthquakes playoff hopes have grown, and with 3 games remaining in the season, they sit a single point below the thin red line in the standings that separates the 5 playoff entrants from the early vacationers. By some accounts, the Quakes even control their own destiny when it comes to qualifying for the postseason. The mere idea of such a state of affairs existing today seemed inconceivable during those dark days in June.
In its last 11 games, since a shovel-fueled 2 game road trip in early July, San Jose has posted one of the best records in MLS at 7-2-2. The Quakes home success has continued, as they remain unbeaten since a season-opening loss to RSL, and their away woes have diminished. Before their last road trip, the Earthquakes could count but a single victory in 14 tries. With wins over Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA, the club has tripled their tally. Where once a hole existed, a hill is beginning to form.
The turnaround for the Earthquakes since the midpoint of the MLS season has been amazing, and a continuation of their good form could see them competing for MLS Cup for the second straight postseason. Even the excavation project that marked the start of San Jose’s CONCACAF Champions League campaign has been reversed, and the Quakes control their own path to next spring’s CCL knockout round when they face C.D. Heredia on October 23. Confidence surrounding the club has never been higher.
No longer is dirt spilling over the edge of the early season abyss. The digging has stopped. And for the first time in a long time, the Earthquakes are staring at nothing but blue skies.