San Jose Earthquakes headed to quarterfinals of the MLS tournament

The title “Super Sub” is fitting Chris Wondolowski just fine.

Wondolowski, Major League Soccer’s all-time leading goalscorer, has been relegated to the bench this year as the San Jose Earthquakes have transformed under coach Matias Almeyda.

But Wondolowski, 37, keeps scoring when given a chance to play. It happened again Monday night as the Earthquakes advanced to the quarterfinals of the MLS Is Back tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida.

Wondo’s goal was part of a 5-2 victory over Real Salt Lake in the Round of 16 game that is a reminder of how much San Jose has improved in the year-plus since Almeyda arrived from Chivas de Guadalajara.

“The team is growing game after game,” Almeyda said in Spanish in a Zoom conference call. “They have a very positive attitude. They have unity and they sacrifice but more than anything is how they play.”

The Quakes (3-0-1 in the tournament) play with the thought of scoring goals. Wondolowski got his 162nd goal in a remarkable career when scoring for the third consecutive game.

Wondo’s moment was but a side note as San Jose headed to the quarterfinals to face the winner of the Columbus Crew-Minnesota United game Tuesday night. The quarterfinal game is scheduled for 5 p.m. (Pacific) Saturday.

Earthquakes players had fine performances across the field Monday but perhaps most impressive was Magnus Eriksson, who has been the subject of reports that he could return to his native Sweden this summer.

Eriksson, who is out of contract after the season, scored twice in the second half on penalty kicks and created the play that led to a 2-1 lead. Eriksson said he had no doubts about burying both PKs, which was evident by the way he struck them.

San Jose exuded confidence after halftime when unleashing a potent attack that has Major League Soccer taking notice.

“This is one of the best performances we’ve done in a long time,” Eriksson said. “We feel like a strong group together.”

The strength emanates from Almeyda. A former Argentine World Cup player, Almeyda is more interested in building a seamless team than creating superstars.

Put it this way: He is Wondolowski’s kind of coach because the Quakes’ captain is the antithesis of a celebrity soccer player.

“The most gratifying thing is, the players don’t change their attitude,” Almeyda said. “They still support the system whether they are up or behind. That is called conviction.”

The belief could be found in the second half when the teams opened play tied 1-1.

San Jose regained the lead in the 49th minute after referee Drew Fischer awarded a penalty because Real’s Alvin Jones took down Tommie Thompson from behind inside the area. Eriksson slotted a shot in the upper right corner.

Valeri Qazaishvili made it 3-1 with a determined attack in the 62nd minute. The Georgian international teammates call “Vako” stole a ball in the Quakes’ offensive third of the field after one of his shots had been stopped by Real goalkeeper Zac MacMath.

Then Qazaishvilli found teammate Andy Rios on the left in a give-and-go that led to Vako’s easy goal.

It was not just a ransacking offense Monday night. The lead was preserved with the help of Argentine goalkeeper Daniel Vega, who had big second-half saves within four minutes to frustrate Real’s Damir Kreilach twice.

But the Quakes are not a complete team just yet. Both Real goals came because of San Jose’s defensive errors that could have been avoided.

Salt Lake crept back into the game in the 75th minute when Kreilach finally converted to make the score 3-2.  Salt Lake’s goal was the result of the Quakes defense letting Marcelo Silva dribble upfield and find Kreliach in a good position to score.

But Silva was sent off nine minutes later with a red card for a dirty tackle on Jackson Yueill.

That took care of that with Wondo and Eriksson adding two late goals.

As for the first 45 minutes,  look at a span of 73 seconds to find the beauty and the bad of these Earthquakes.

Cristian Espinoza calmly struck a right-footed shot that dipped underneath MacMath in the 21st minute for his second goal of the tournament.

The Quakes lead, and jubilation, ended moments later because of a  maddening defensive mistake when the Earthquakes’ backline was caught too far upfield.

Defender Guram Kashia could not control Corey Baird’s pass just over his head that allowed Douglas Martinez to sashay into the penalty box. The Honduran striker took his time to chip the ball over Vega.

These trespasses can be forgiven if the Quakes continue their desert-hot scoring spree — 11 goals in the three games since a tournament-opening scoreless draw.

For now, everyone is enjoying the ride.

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Author: Elliott Almond