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The San Jose Earthquakes are proving to be something special at the MLS Is Back tournament.
How special remains to be seen. But for the time being, San Jose enjoyed one of its best moments in years Sunday night after winning Group B with a powerful 2-0 victory over the Chicago Fire.
The group had two more games to be played but it didn’t matter to the Quakes, who won for the second consecutive match. The highlight saw fan-favorite Chris Wondolowski score for the second game in a row as a substitute at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida.
Wondolowski’s goal in the 82nd minute came 30 seconds after he entered the game as the surprising Earthquakes headed to the knockout stage that begins Saturday. San Jose finished group play with seven points.
“I think he can play five more years and come on and score if he wants to,” midfielder Jackson Yueill of Wondolowski, 37.
The team captain has said 2020 will be his final season but that could change. He might want another go because of the way the MLS schedule has been rejiggered in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
Besides, these guys are enjoying themselves with a relentless attack that drives opponents batty.
The result Sunday catapulted San Jose to win the group with two victories and a tie. The way they performed so far the Quakes will expect more than just reaching the Round of 16. San Jose (2-1-2, eight points overall) looks like a team that could make a deep run.
“The players are responding in an excellent manner,” coach Matias Almeyda said through a translator during a conference call. “It is a team that grows day by day. A team that is growing collectively and individually and a team that looks to enjoy playing.”
Chicago made San Jose work for every possession until the 56th minute when Cristian Espinoza’ scored off a left-footed strike past goalkeeper Kenny Kronholm.
The goal seemed to breathe confidence into the Earthquakes’ offense.
The score came off an excellent build-up with Yueill slipping the ball to Espinoza, who did the rest. The Argentine midfielder dribbled toward the center of the box past Chicago’s Francisco Calvo to create just enough space for an open shot.
“We knew it would be a game that would be hard-fought,” Espinoza said through the translator. “After the first goal space opened up but we had to remain calm.”
The way San Jose’s defense clamped down it looked as if one goal would be enough. But Wondolowski doubled the score to ensure the victory.
The play began with Tommy Thompson’s pass to Carlos Fierro, who also entered the game with Wondolowski seconds beforehand. Fierro found Wondolowski unmarked about 10 yards from the goalmouth.
His perfectly placed pass allowed Wondolowski to flick the ball with his head inside the near post for his MLS leading 161st-career goal.
San Jose showed its depth Sunday when Almeyda made two defensive changes to start the final Group B game. German Florian Jungwirth took over one of the center back spots for newcomer Oswaldo Alanis. Paul Marie started in place of Thompson at fullback.
While the goalscoring gets the attention, it had to be noted San Jose earned its second shutout in three games. This was a team that had given up 10 goals in four games to start the 2020 season.
On Wednesday, the Quakes’ lapses led Vancouver to score three times before San Jose rebounded with a 4-3 victory.
Chicago coach Raphael Wicky had a distinct plan to force the Earthquakes out of their pestering, ball possession style that can frustrate opponents. It worked for a while.
But San Jose might be the most maddening team to face in Major League Soccer. It’s like walking into a swarm of mosquitoes on a summer hike. Quakes players seem to be everywhere on the field at all times.
A scoreless first half looked chaotic with both teams employing a high press to disrupt the other side. San Jose still held possession of the ball for 70.8 percent of the time.
During the tense first half, players took fewer risks with a berth in the Round of 16 at stake.
All that time with the ball yielded only four shots, one on target, for San Jose. The Fire’s strategy was clear: let the Quakes pass the ball around outside the penalty area and absorb the pressure until they made a mistake.
“We tried to pressure them high in the beginning,” Wicky told FS1 during the first-half hydration break. “Now it is a question of fitness. Can we do that for 90 minutes? Probably not.”
The Fire’s coach got that right.
It simply was too much to ask.
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Author: Elliott Almond