After finishing atop the Western Conference regular season standings, Sporting Kansas City will look to punctuate an unprecedented 2020 campaign by winning silverware on Major League Soccer's greatest stage. The Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs will see Sporting join an expanded field of 18 clubs, all of which have their sights firmly set on hoisting the MLS Cup on Dec. 12.
In order to claim the ultimate prize, Sporting Kansas City must navigate a single-elimination bracket packed with in-form teams. The first step is a Round One showdown with the No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday, Nov. 22, at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is slated for 3 p.m. CT with live coverage on FS1 and FOX Deportes and tickets available at SeatGeek.com.
As postseason anticipation continues to build, SportingKC.com is rolling out a 12-day countdown to the club's opening playoff match, offering a comprehensive preview of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. From key storylines and positional breakdowns to history lessons and community initiatives, our Countdown to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs highlights the many reasons to be pumped for Sporting’s pursuit of another MLS Cup title. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/playoffcountdown.
With one week remaining in our playoff countdown, it’s time to take a look at Sporting Kansas City’s opponent in Round One—an opponent they haven't faced in 15 months.
Enter the San Jose Earthquakes, an industrious outfit that finished the regular season with a 6-3-1 record to snag the eighth and final playoff berth in the West. Attack-minded head coach Matias Almeyda, now in his second season at the helm, has every intention of leading San Jose to their first playoff win since 2012. Sporting Kansas City, of course, have different ideas.
Let’s jump right into it.
Late Comebacks: San Jose has earned 14 points from losing positions this season, including four come-from-behind wins. Both totals are the highest in MLS. While conceding the first goal can be a death sentence for some teams, the Earthquakes have lost just seven of the 13 matches in which they have fallen behind 1-0. San Jose also leads the league with 12 goals after the 75th minute.
Strong identity: Almeyda’s arrival in 2019 ushered in a new culture for the Earthquakes, who have bought into his high-energy, high-octane approach. A unique man-marking system makes the Earthquakes one of the most exciting MLS teams to watch, although they have shown more and more tactical adaptability over the course of 2020 by shifting to a more pragmatic approach in select instances.
No pressure: As the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the Quakes are effectively playing with house money. Few will be expecting them to make a long postseason run, but to write off Almeyda’s hard-working side would be a mistake.
Leaking goals: San Jose conceded a whopping 51 goals over the course of 23 regular season matches, five more than any other team at a clip of 2.22 per game. The Earthquakes conceded five or more goals on five separate occasions, the most in a single season in MLS history despite the shortened campaign. While the club’s man-marking system is certainly unique and, at times, very difficult to play against, there’s also a drawback: when the high press is breached, the goals come flooding in at a worrying rate.
Transition defense: Matches are often decided in transition moments—the pivotal instances when teams switch from defense to attack and vice versa. As a team that commits numbers forward in search of goals, San Jose have been one of the league’s most vulnerable sides on the counterattack. MLSsoccer.com highlighted the trend earlier this week, pointing to the fact that San Jose were among the leaders in transition goals allowed.
Playoff experience: The Earthquakes are making just their second playoff appearance in the last eight seasons, and although several current players were on the team in their most recent playoff outing—a lopsided 5-0 loss to Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the 2017 knockout round—the San Jose roster is short on postseason experience. In fact, the entire squad has combined for only 11 career starts in the MLS Cup Playoffs, with veteran striker Chris Wondolowski accounting for six of them.
Three Players to Watch
Cristian Espinoza: The Argentine Designated Player has a team-leading nine assists and ranks sixth in MLS with 48 chances created. Espinoza is San Jose’s the most dangerous playmaker and his one goal, one assist performance in a 3-2 triumph over LAFC in the penultimate round of the regular season was instrumental in vaulting the Quakes into the playoffs.
Jackson Yueill: No San Jose field player has logged more minutes in 2020 than Yueill, a talented 23-year-old who has appeared seven times for the U.S. Men’s National Team since debuting in June 2019. With fellow midfielder Andres Rios drifting more into the attack and deep-lying destroyer Judson acting as a shield in front of the back four, Yueill occupies an all-important box-to-box role for the Quakes and ranks sixth in MLS with over 50 successful passes per game.
Chris Wondolowski: At 37 years young, Wondolowski is one of the best forwards in MLS history. The league’s all-time leading scorer bagged 10 or more goals in 10 consecutive seasons from 2010-2019 and almost certainly would have extended that streak in 2020 with a full 34-game slate. Even so, Wondolowski has a team-best seven goals this season, including three in his last three appearances.
Three Players Absent
The Earthquakes could be down three players next Sunday due to an untimely FIFA international window. Midfielder Vako and defender Guram Kashia have joined the Georgia Men’s National Team for UEFA Nations League matches, while 20-year-old Marcos Lopez—a regular San Jose starter since early September—has linked up with Peru for 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying. Per MLS rules, these players must quarantine for nine days upon their return to the U.S., meaning they wouldn’t be available until the second round of the playoffs.