Start spreading the news: If the San Jose Earthquakes are going to make their return to the MLS Cup Playoffs anything more than a one-round cameo, they’ll have to take out the Designated Player darlings from New York.
With a 4-1 loss to Kansas City on Saturday night to close out the regular season, the Quakes – who had a chance to face intrastate rivals Los Angeles had they won or even tied – will instead take on the Red Bulls, beginning Oct. 30 at Buck Shaw Stadium.
“It’s what I wanted, what I hoped for, what I wished for,” said Quakes captain Jason Hernandez, a New Jersey native who broke into MLS with the old MetroStars. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to. Being a part of that franchise, being someone who got to grow up watching that franchise, to go back and play against them, it’s going to be great.”
It won’t be great, of course, if the Quakes play as they did against the Wizards, who saw Birahim Diop throw down a hat trick without much problem, trumping Chris Wondolowski’s league-leading 18th goal.
“It’s about us,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “We have to get our mental state sorted and get ready. We just have to sort ourselves out and get back to the way that we play soccer. We did it the couple games before this one, but this one you just have to throw away.”
Kansas City’s four-goal haul, which included a second-half injury-time own-goal as salt in the wound, is the highest total San Jose has given up this season.
The Quakes are just hoping that it represents nothing more than a blip at the end of the schedule, even if it was – combined with a 1-0 home loss to Houston last Saturday – a second poor performance in eight days. Both defeats came after San Jose had already clinched their first playoff spot since being reborn in 2008.
“In two of our last three games, we’ve been on cruise control, and you can tell,” Hernandez said. “It’s unfortunate, because you want to have good momentum going into the playoffs, but you can’t cry over spilled milk. It’s one thing to look at it, and bounce back from it and say we got all that stuff out of our system now, it’s time to go on a run. Hopefully guys will have that mentality.”
The Quakes and Red Bulls split their games this year, with San Jose winning 4-0 at home May 8, and New York returning the favor by a 2-0 count on Aug. 28.
That second game took place after the Red Bulls brought international stars Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez in to join Juan Pablo Angel as DPs. New York rode that trio to the Eastern Conference regular-season title, and Henry scored his first MLS goal against the Quakes.
“They’re an entirely different team new than the beginning of the season,” Hernandez said. “But so are we.”
It will be up to New York’s defense to stop possible Golden Boot winner Wondolowski, who tapped home his 18th goal of the season in the 70th minute on Saturday night, volleying a Geovanni cross from four yards out. By scoring San Jose’s last 10 goals, Wondolowski now holds the all-time MLS record for the most consecutive goals by one player for his team.
Wondolowski’s hardware hopes now rest on the FC Dallas defense, which will be tasked with keeping Los Angeles’ Edson Buddle in check on Sunday. Buddle only needs one goal to match Wondolowski’s 18-goal total, and the Galaxy star would win the Golden Boot because he has registered more assists this season.
“I’m not too confident,” Wondolowski said. “If I was a betting man, I’d put Buddle on at least two tomorrow, and one gets me anyways.”
Wondolowski was not as pessimistic about his team’s postseason chances, even if they're up against one of the league’s two highest-profile teams.
“Obviously, New York is a first-class team, so it’s going to take a true battle to beat them,” Wondolowski said. “I think we have what it takes to beat them. It wasn’t what we showed today, but we go out and do the little things, win the 50-50s, do that stuff, I think we like our chances.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes