Last season, it took the San Jose Earthquakes nearly half their schedule -- 14 of 30 matches -- to record three victories.
This year, the Quakes put win No. 3 in the books on May Day, courtesy of a 1-0 decision over visiting Colorado on Saturday night.
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But it’s not just that San Jose are 3-2, for their best start since 2003, that's so head-turning. It’s how the Quakes have gotten there, riding the back of unexpected scoring hero Chris Wondolowski, who tallied for the third time in as many matches, and a staunch defense that blunted a Colorado attack which came into this week with an MLS-high eight goals.
Words such as “workmanlike” and “grind it out” were being thrown around a victorious locker room. The only thing keeping it from being a full Springsteen trifecta was a “blue collar” reference.
“To win 1-0, when we don’t play our best game, is the sign of a good team,” right back Chris Leitch said after the match. “I don’t think we would have won that game last year. So that shows growth. Amazing growth.”
The growth of this past week came in the form of San Jose’s new-found ability to give up a majority of possession -- just as the Quakes did in a 3-2 loss to Chivas USA -- but prevent almost any dangerous scoring opportunities.
“They had the ball for a bit, but if they have the ball 50 yards from our goal, we’re not too worried,” center back Jason Hernandez said.
In fact, all three of Joe Cannon’s saves came on shots from outside the penalty box. He was able to push aside Wells Thompson’s 45th-minute blast from the edge of the 18 (scrambling to collect the rebound), scooped up a cross off the right sideline from Kosuke Kimura in the 51st minute and cleanly plucked a 25-yard probe from Danny Earls five minutes after that.
“I think we’re becoming a team that people know for being hard to break down,” said holding midfielder Brandon McDonald. “We’re being a bank of eight, making it harder to get into the midfield, and then even harder to get to the back line. To get back to Joe, it’s going to take a lot of effort.”
For the Quakes, this wasn’t just another game. It was a chance to take three points from a club that snatched two victories away from the Quakes last season, each time with a second-half injury-time penalty kick from Conor Casey.
“Obviously, the two games last year were burned in our memory, and we understood what it would take the get the result,” Hernandez said. “It kind of bugged me, I saw some article [on MLSsoccer.com] that Colorado’s making sure not to look past San Jose because they have the Galaxy next week. To be honest, that was a bit disturbing, knowing that they were lucky to get two ties from us, and we beat them this preseason. We’re not the same San Jose we were last year.”
It looked through the first half-hour as though the Rapids wouldn’t need late heroics. Colorado was dominating the ball, if not generating outright chances, and San Jose hadn’t recorded a shot since Ryan Johnson was knocked off stride by Marvell Wynne, ruining a breakout opportunity in the second minute.
Then Wondolowski struck again, powering a left-footed shot in the 33rd minute from just inside the penalty box past Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens, off the crossbar and into the net. He was set up on the play by Ryan Johnson, whose subtle touch on Ramiro Corrales’ lead pass gave Wondolowski just enough room to get free from Drew Moor and strike the ball soundly on the bounce.
It was the first time since the Quakes have had a player score in three consecutive matches since Johnson did it in May 2009. But San Jose lost all three of those matches; during Wondolowski’s scoring string, the Earthquakes are 2-1 and Saturday, they jumped from sixth place in the Western Conference into a tie for fourth, just one point behind Colorado and Houston, who share second place.
“This is the fifth game of the year,” Leitch said. “We’re 3-2. In all my years of being in this league, you’re not going to win the championship after five games. Or six games. Or 10 games. Or 15 games. But you can lose it. You can put yourself in a big hole, a la last year. This year, sometimes we don’t play our best soccer, and we’re still getting results. That gives me inspiration that we’re a different team and a little bit more mentally tough than last year.”
Judging by the number of victories already secured, that’s certainly true.
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @sjquakes.