San Jose Earthquakes coach Chris Leitch may prove a shrewd tactician but even he knows that soccer isn’t always just about the X’s and O’s. The intangibles that comprise a team’s mentality, their work ethic and spirit are equally important and not necessarily something a coach can control. The past two weeks have seen the Quakes spiral down the Western Conference table, and after last weekend’s draw with the Philadelphia Union, Leitch openly questioned his team’s mentality in regards to defending set pieces.
A woeful 4-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake midweek called for further regrouping, so the team held a players-only meeting to assess their recent form. Today’s 3-0 trouncing of the LA Galaxy was evidence that the team-talk worked. Though Leitch might not know the secret as to what was said in that meeting, he was grateful for the relief granted by their decisive victory and clearly proud of his team’s effort.
“It wasn’t tactics, it wasn’t anything I said,” the coach said after the match. “It was them digging in, really having each others’ back and leaving everything out there.”
Captain Chris Wondolowski helped lead the team’s efforts both on and off the field, netting a late goal to seal the victory, their first road win under Leitch’s reign. It wasn’t the most emphatic of finishes, a cheeky little dink to beat the oncoming goalkeeper, but its impact has the potential to turn around San Jose’s season.
“It’s a big point in the season for us,” said Wondo. “Especially in a rivalry game it’s a bit of a statement.”
Although Wondo’s role changed as the Quakes transitioned from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 formation in order to defend LA’s three forwards, he didn’t miss a beat when it mattered.
“He didn’t play traditionally up high today and the amount of work he put in was phenomenal,” said Leitch. “I guarantee you he ran the most out there. Even in the biggest moments, he steps up and comes through. Even in the smallest little details, he excels.”
Wondolowski is one of club’s most consistent finishers, however, and it took a team effort to etch out such a convincing victory. His striking partner Marco Ureña has sometimes struggled to assert himself this season but the Costa Rican was also a standout performer today, driving the attack with relentless energy. Ureña’s hold-up play was a key outlet for the Quakes as they sought to break on the counter-attack in the first half and his incisive runs were also dangerous once the visitors had established the upper hand in the second half.
Despite badly scuffing a sitter early on, Ureña rebounded to net a lovely finish from Jackson Yeuill’s through-ball. Yeuill sprayed gorgeous passes across the park all afternoon and his chipped ball to set up Ureña was the pick of the bunch.
“I saw him running and there was a lot of space so I chipped it over and lucky he took a good touch,” said Yeuill. “At first, I thought he was offsides but he kept running and it was a great finish by him. It was a good buildup to that play, we started getting more possession of the ball so to utilize and find those passes was really key for us.”
Yeuill’s performance earned rave reviews from Leitch, who said: “He had a great assist for Ureña’s goal and he helps us so much when he gets on the ball because he’s phenomenal at picking out the next pass. If someone is making the run, Jackson will normally pick him out. He does a whole lot for us as far as connecting passes and moving it quickly. He understands how to change the pace of the game, sometimes he’ll play it back to slow it down, sometimes he’ll play it forward to pick up the tempo and I think that’s really rare for a young player. That’s one of Jackson’s really good qualities.”
Vako Qazaishvili also got on the scoresheet, scoring an emphatic volley in first half stoppage time from Shea Salinas’ corner. The Quakes have been weak on set pieces recently, which made the goal even sweeter. “On our corner kicks, especially in the first half, I thought we were attacking the ball really well, which is something we want to do and have worked on a lot,” said Salinas. “We stacked the near post on that one and I’m trying to hit it hard, near post. Fatai [Alashe] and Wondo both challenge for it and Vako is supposed to pull off to that back post. It worked out pretty much how we drew it up. The ball goes to Vako and he hits a hard strike and it goes in the back of the net.”
Such clean execution had previously escaped San Jose this season and Sunday’s victory provides a huge confidence boost heading into the home stretch of the season. Not to mention they’re back above the red-line in the playoff chase, albeit just barely.
“This game was brilliant for us,” said Yeuill. “We definitely needed a game like this to come out away, to play and score goals like we did. Especially late on in the season coming into our last few games, this one is really encouraging for us. We go into this break knowing that we’re not in a bad position to make a playoff run. This game keeps us going.”