FEATURE: For Earthquakes, playoffs start Sunday

Technically the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs don’t begin until next week. But for the San Jose Earthquakes, the playoffs start Sunday.

With Sunday’s dramatic 1-1 draw at Western Conference-best Vancouver Whitecaps FC, coupled with losses by both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, the Earthquakes jumped from eighth to sixth in the standings and now control their own destiny moving forward. Holding the wins tiebreaker over FCD (12 to 10) and a one-point lead over RSL (43 to 42), the Earthquakes now face a win-and-you’re-in scenario on Sunday afternoon.

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San Jose is largely in this position because of its home form, going 9-2-5 over the course of the season, including key wins down the stretch against the Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers – two of the West’s top-five teams. The Quakes will surely be leaning on the home fans once again to provide excellent support in Sunday’s critical season finale.

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of San Jose controlling their own destiny may have been considered a pipe dream. The team’s struggles on the road, save for a 3-0 blasting of the LA Galaxy on Aug. 27, is well documented and made yesterday seem like an uphill battle from the start. Vancouver, the Western Conference’s top team, had gone 4-0-2 in their last six home games and could secure a first round bye with three points – making them as motivated as anyone.

Whitecaps FC got a goal in the 29th minute courtesy of Yordy Reyna, but the Earthquakes didn’t freeze up at halftime despite taking a 1-0 deficit into the break.

“To be honest, a couple games in the past a month or two ago, we would have put our heads down and it could have gotten ugly,” explained captain Chris Wondolowski to a media contingent postgame. “But we stayed with it, kind of regrouped at halftime, and we kept saying that we have to stay the course. Keep trying to get opportunities and finish them when we do.”

The back-and-forth game saw chances for both sides, with Quakes keeper Andrew Tarbell playing arguably his best game next to the U.S. Open Cup semifinal in Kansas City. San Jose finally broke through in the 77th minute when Wondolowski’s cheeky no-look flick through the legs of a Whitecaps defender put Vako in on goal. He out-muscled his marker and neatly tucked his shot into the side netting of the far post. You could have heard a pin drop at BC Place. Vako nearly added a second moments later, but his curling effort was tipped just wide by the fingertips of Vancouver’s net-minder.

Regardless of the postgame smiles and celebration, the job is not yet complete. Next Sunday’s task – to win against Minnesota United FC – is not going to be easy by any means. United’s recent form, including an away win at Atlanta, suggests they clearly do not resemble the team that had an embarrassing start to their MLS journey just a few months ago.

“I think you’ve got to approach it the same way we have this game, the same way we did against Portland last game,” said head coach Chris Leitch postgame. “It’s running towards these games and understanding the magnitude of the situation, and wanting that on our shoulders. I think that’s what this group and this locker room wants. They want this challenge, they want this opportunity. They want to have it in their hands, and I think these are the games these guys definitely look forward to playing in.”
 
Limited tickets are still available for Sunday’s showdown via Ticketmaster.com. Come support the team and help provide a loud, energetic atmosphere for the Quakes to draw from. A trip to the postseason is at stake.

And hey, it’s also Fan Appreciation Day, so get some free swag, prize opportunities and postgame autographs in the 7UP Epicenter!

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