After knocking off Dallas, the Earthquakes may be rumbling again
Five years ago, the San Jose Earthquakes were the story of the league -- if not a cartoon of the league.
Between the league-record-setting 27 goals of Chris Wondolowski, the unsubtle physical virtues of the "Bash Brothers" Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, and the "Goonies never say die" tagline that attached itself to their habit of late, late comebacks, San Jose rocked and rolled its way to the 2012 Supporters' Shield, and was the larger-than-life team to beat in that year's playoffs.
But after a disappointing series loss to rivals -- and eventual MLS Cup winners -- LA Galaxy in those playoffs, the Earthquakes have never seemed as vivid. Ask most casual MLS fans their impressions of the Earthquakes in the past few years and they'll probably mention the new Avaya Stadium, and its "longest outdoor bar in North America". Maybe they'll also mention last year's All-Star game against Arsenal, that took place in the city. What they won't mention is a playoff game since that LA loss -- because there haven't been any.
Despite favorite son Dom Kinnear returning to the organization as head coach at the end of 2014, the subsequent turnaround has been slow. The new stadium might have kept pace with the trends of the league, but the team, it seemed, had not.
But something's been stirring in San Jose this year, and in recent weeks in particular. Neutrals might first have noticed it when glancing at the early-season stats showing Wondolowski high up on the assist charts, an eyebrow-raising development for a player most known as a formidable poacher rather than creator of chances.
But that's because Wondolowski has been deployed in a more roving role this season, in a retooled attack designed to improve on the team's league-worst 32-goal haul last year. At times it's involved having four attacking players spread out across the field at the same time, with Wondolowski playing in pockets of space off the advanced movement of Costa Rica international Marco Urena, and flanked by Dutch striker Danny Hoesen and the Albanian international Jahmir Hyka.
And while the points return has been intermittent, particularly in a somewhat lean April, that's not told the whole story of a San Jose team that is beginning to look dangerous again, reviving the sense of belief that defined the Goonies.
Other than Wondolowski's reinvention, Hyka's first goal for the team was something of a symbolic warning shot that the "never say die" version of San Jose was back. Coming in the 94th minute to rescue a draw against Dallas on April 14, Hyka's late equalizer was the second in as many games, with Wondolowski having secured a final-minute point against Seattle six days earlier.
The offense has been working hard on the other side of the ball as well. It's not uncommon these days to see Wondolowski making interceptions near the halfway line rather than hovering on the shoulder of the last defender. And for those attacks that do make it through at the other end, it doesn't hurt the Earthquakes' prospects that David Bingham continues to exponentially improve as a goalkeeper with a potential national-team future.
Bingham had another great game at the weekend to help deny the potent Dallas attack, but it's Hyka's game winner that really drew attention. Started with the deftest of flicks into the box by Urena, the move was finished when Hyka skillfully scooped the ball over the last defender for a first-time shot off the inside of the far post. From barely discernible threat to game-winning goal in just three sublime touches. It was a great finish, a product of the kind of swagger only a confident team can muster.
And in most weeks it would have been a shoo-in for goal of the week, but Hyka's effort happened to fall in something of a vintage weekend for special goals, so he might have to settle for an honorable mention.
Not that being overlooked should bother Hyka or San Jose. Without being heralded, the Earthquakes are now tucked in in joint second in the West, with a key stretch of in-conference games coming up against LA, Portland and Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City. There's nothing yet to suggest San Jose is about to blow through that trio of games and storm the league, but there's been plenty to suggest that the team can do damage to any one of its rivals and keep the tight race out west uncertain in the process.
One way or another, from here on out, there will be more scrutiny, and for the first time in a long time San Jose looks equipped to withstand it. Whisper it, but the Earthquakes might just be rumbling again.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.