San Jose Earthquakes ride learning curve to cusp of MLS playoffs
For much of the summer, the San Jose Earthquakes did just about everything they could to show they weren't a playoff team. The Quakes suffered some humbling defeats, and its record following the dismissal of manager Dominic Kinnear on June 25 is W8, D3, L7.
But thanks to a revised lineup in the last two matches, San Jose has looked a sturdier outfit, and after threatening to drift out of the playoff places, the Quakes have managed to sneak into the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, San Jose controls its own destiny. A win at home against expansion side Minnesota United on Sunday will clinch the organization's first postseason berth since the Supporters' Shield-winning season of 2012.
"It's a competitive group," San Jose manager Chris Leitch told ESPN FC via phone. "I think they do have their sights set on accomplishing one of their goals, which is to make the postseason. Especially over the last couple of weeks they've crawled and fought their way to get into the position they're in right now."
San Jose's path to the cusp of a playoff spot has been anything but typical. After GM Jesse Fioranelli fired Kinnear he installed Leitch, who had never coached at the professional level and seemed determined to adopt a set of tactics that was the direct opposite of the defense-first approach espoused by his predecessor.
Leitch began experimenting with an attack-minded 3-5-2, though he didn't abandon the 4-4-2 entirely. Younger players like Tommy Thompson and Jackson Yueill were inserted into the lineup. It proved unsustainable. While there were some encouraging performances at home, the results on the road were ghastly, with multi-goal defeats becoming the norm. Only the monumental collapse of FC Dallas allowed San Jose to remain the playoff race.
Leitch admitted that some of the tactical changes were too much for the team to handle.
"There's going to be a little bit of a learning curve there," he said. "For every step you make forward, there's going to be a couple steps you make back. It's always tough to rely on from game to game something that is pretty new to the group and have it come off every game."
The nadir was Sept. 27, a 4-1 home loss to the Chicago Fire, who simply tore the Quakes' midfield apart. At that point, Leitch found his inner Kinnear, reverting to a 4-4-2 that bore a striking resemblance to what his predecessor was doing earlier in the season.
Darwin Ceren and Anibal Godoy were reinserted into the center of midfield; Jhamir Hyka and designated player signing Vako were stationed out on the wings; out went center-back Francois Affolter, and in came old standby Victor Bernardez.
"We've given every single player a chance this season, and we've given every single formation a chance this season," noted Fioranelli. "If there's one thing I've learned, is that we insist in wanting to continue to take courageous decisions, even if it's difficult. I don't think we're more pragmatic, I just think we're more secure because the secret to finding the [sweet spot] is outside of the comfort zone at times."
But based on the last two performances with the aforementioned lineup -- a 2-1 home win over Portland, and a gritty 1-1 tie at Vancouver -- the Quakes haven't strayed outside their comfort zone. Rather, they've returned to it.
"Putting Godoy and Ceren in there gives us more of balance that can help us construct and build our attack as well as be vital cogs in there that can plug up some holes, and make sure that we have numbers when we're playing defensively as well," said Leitch. "Bernardez gives us heart, a guy that will die for this organization and put everything out there on the field. I think he's showcased that, especially of late."
The result is a side less prone to the immense peaks and troughs from the summer. With Godoy and Ceren shielding the backline, Hyka and Vako have more freedom to attack. Bernardez will never be classified as a technician, but his physical presence and leadership, combined with the more technically adept Florian Jungwirth has created a solid partnership in the back.
Not surprisingly, any attempt to compare the current lineup with what Kinnear did previously is met with some resistance by Fioranelli.
"I do think we're trying to provoke our opportunities more often," he said. "I have a feeling that is starting to pay off the first dividends."
Of course it helps to add a DP-level attacker in Vako, who has added a bit of magic to the Quakes' attack to the tune of five goals and two assists in 12 appearances, seven of them starts. But the team's newfound defensive resilience means that Vako's goals -- like last weekend's equalizer against Vancouver -- have the chance to mean something.
There's also no shame in there being a learning curve for the GM and head coach in terms of what kinds of players and tactics will work in MLS, and which ones won't. The good news is that with one week left in the regular season, they seem to have figured it out in time.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.