We are still weeks away from being able to pen the headline, “Quakes qualify for MLS Cup playoffs,” but that possibility increased dramatically when San Jose captured a 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake last weekend. Needing 3 points just to keep pace in the West, the Quakes also took their first step over a conference opponent, slumping FC Dallas, in climbing into a tie for sixth place with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The win at Rio Tinto Stadium, only its second of the season away from home in all competitions, breathed new life into San Jose’s moribund playoff hopes.
How much life? With 41 points from 30 games, and with 4 games left in the season, the Earthquakes kept alive their chance of reaching the 51 point threshold in the Western Conference. Without getting all pedantic, the long-held MLS axiom that 50 points guarantees a spot in the playoffs looks all but certain to be overturned this season, with the magic half-century mark likely to leave a team 1 point short of the postseason. To get to 51 points, the Earthquakes need finish their remaining 4 games with 3 wins and a draw.
But even that figure might not be enough. After all, many of the teams fighting for the 5 playoff spots in the West, those 5 spots that sit above the thin red line on the MLSSoccer.com standings chart, have games in hand on the Quakes. Win out, and they finish ahead of San Jose no matter what the Earthquakes themselves accomplish. Maybe one team achieves that feat, but not all of them. Thanks to the MLS unbalanced regular season schedule, Western teams will be battling with one another throughout the last month of the season, and some will find their fortunes less than perfect. Someone is certain to slip up.
And that is where the Earthquakes can take advantage. With two games at Buck Shaw Stadium, against the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, and two games at the StubHub Center, against Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy, San Jose has a fighting chance to be that team from the West to finish the season the best. Fortress Buck Shaw has been a house of horrors for visiting teams, and the Earthquakes will look to those two games as 6 points they must collect. Road trips to the Southland, the closest and most painless of the potential MLS travel destination on the MLS calendar for San Jose, present the intriguing possibility of a sweep for the confidence carrying Quakes.
According to the MLS playoff odds predictor over at SportsClubStats.com, a perfect 4-for-4 record to close out the season gives San Jose a better than 99% chance of making the postseason. In fact, with 4 wins, the Quakes would have just under a coin-flip’s chance of finishing in the top-three in the West and earning a first-round bye. Even finishing the season with a 3-0-1 record and 51 points elevates San Jose’s odds of challenging for MLS Cup above 75%, while 50 points puts the odds at 50%. So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
Perhaps unthinkable a few months ago, and even today optimistic by any standard, the thought that San Jose could end its season with 6 wins out 7 matches, with 3 of those on the road, is safe to share out loud and in public. The assured ridicule others will heap upon the sanguine should not diminish their undaunted enthusiasm, for MLS history presents a similar tale of late-season fortune: Real Salt Lake’s 2009 sprint to the playoffs and ultimately MLS Cup.
Entering the last month of the season, RSL was plodding along in regular season play and looked certain to be on the outside looking in when the MLS postseason started. A hard-fought win against the Red Bulls set the stage for the last game of the season: a Rocky Mountain Cup clash with rival Colorado. Anything less than a win would have ended the season for Salt Lake, and it responded with the most important victory in franchise history in defeating the Rapids 3-0. RSL rode that momentum through the playoffs and ultimately to the champion’s stage at MLS Cup.
Do the Earthquakes have a similar run in them? The odds say that they control their own destiny, but it will take performance on the field and not in a computer simulation to reach their goal. Emboldened with the fearlessness and faith that has grown through the summer, the Quakes enter October knowing the task at hand and confident that it can be carried through.