Starting Tuesday and bleeding on into Wednesday, Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs fell one by one out of the CONCACAF Champions’ League (CCL). The word “bleeding” fairly describes the scene and sensation when a pair of clubs from Mexico’s contingent jabbed in nine goals over two games against MLS’s finest. And, by common consent, the two teams in question really are MLS’s finest: both the LA Galaxy and Sporting KC are tipped for deep playoff runs.
In the middle of the cross-border knife-fight, however, the bleeding slowed a little. Anyone glancing at the match tracker, or even checking the results later in the day, would have seen the unlikeliest member of MLS’s CCL delegation, the San Jose Earthquakes, applying the direct pressure (and…done with the blood metaphor). The ‘Quakes didn’t get a tail-wind of love for their trip to Toluca for Wednesday’s second leg in the CCL, not with a largely crippled/suspended backline, and especially not carrying a 1-1 draw to the Mexican mountains. But that backline let in only one goal Wednesday night and San Jose pushed Toluca all the way to PKs. And they showed up all right, even there.
I didn’t see anyone flying the San Jose Earthquakes’ flag in the preseason previews, either. To the extent I did, it was pretty heavily caveated (“caveated” is not a real word; just sayin’). Between the way the way the ‘Quakes fought in that Toluca series and the way they keep pulling off that Goonie shit, I’m thinking it’s time to pull all the asterisks. I expect to see them come playoff time. Maybe not for long, but I believe they’ll be there.
The argument isn’t complicated: take away Chris Wondolowski, maybe Clarence Goodson…no, screw it, keep those guys in. More than any team in the league I can think of, San Jose IS MLS’s clearest throw-back to the league’s “hyper-eager dipshit” legacy. They’re direct, basic, some would even argue brutish; they don’t play pretty and even their star power (that’d be Wondo) lacks polish, finesse, maybe even skill. They don’t do perfect balls; they play good crosses. It goes on and on. If it weren’t for those last-gasp winners, observations about this team would begin and end with how very boring they are to watch. And the fouls. By their friggin’ forwards.
What appeal they have, and their greatest strength, grows from the same phenomenon as those last-gasp goals: these guys will run – not walk, but run – to the ends of the earth for each other. If every player on the team could give every other player one of their kidneys, they’d do it. Any time I think of San Jose, my mind goes back to that MLS Insider episode from last year that featured the torrid bromance between Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. So intense was the on-small-screen chemistry, that I expected them to kiss full on the mouth by the end. That’s neither a joke about either player’s sexuality nor a slur related to it – because we’re past that bullshit, hopefully – but it’s a nice entrée to what makes San Jose such a tight, and, I expect, effective team. These guys are absolutely ga-ga about each other. There’s a whiff of “cult” to the Goonies. And that’s their greatest strength.
Real Salt Lake owns the slogan, “The Team Is the Star,” and it definitely applies. For them, though, it’s about players fulfilling roles effectively. At their best, San Jose could play under the slogan, “The Team Is Our Religion.” Fervor both defines them and makes them stronger; they pit 11 very excited, if somewhat non-descript, players against MLS clubs with more on-paper talent week after week; it’s their force multiplier. And I’m guessing it’s going to work for them. This season anyway. I think this is a playoff team, people. It was seeing them play without their defensive starters in nose-bleed Mexico that sold me…