The Earthquakes have an Open Cup plan. Keep the ball, score goals and have fun. No one said it was complicated, and it’s working. Jahmir Hyka and Danny Hoesen, recent European transplants, are two of the plan’s architects and crucial to San Jose’s hot run to the Semifinals. They both smile the same wide way when talk turns to possession and chances, and neither can hide their deep contempt for the dreaded long ball.
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“It’s a pretty simple game,” said Hyka, who’s been dubbed the ‘Albanian Messi’ back home in Tirana. He’s short and stocky and he has feet like a veteran magician’s hands. One second the ball’s there to be taken and the next it’s gone – vanished into the thin air with Hyka racing behind it toward goal. “When you keep the ball and make chances, eventually you’re going to score goals. This is not complicated.”
Hyka takes up a position out wide on the left for San Jose and has been a nightmare for opposing defenders since his arrival in Major League Soccer earlier this year. Just ask LA Galaxy’s Jelle Van Damme and Ashley Cole, who must still be seeing the back of Hyka’s boots in their sleep after a long Quarterfinal night. “Our job as a team is to keep the ball, and we have good players for it,” added the 29-year-old who bounced around the European game – Germany, Norway, Greece and Switzerland, before finding a home in the Bay Area. “There’s not a lot of teams in MLS who can say this, who can be as comfortable on the ball as we are. A lot of them hit the ball long and hope for the best. That’s not for us."
One man benefiting from all this possession is on-loan Dutchman Hoesen. He had three strong seasons with Ajax and is now enjoying his time in San Jose in a team suited to his style and skills. “Hyka’s awesome, man,” said Hoesen, laughing a little, knowing the value of a teammate who makes space and allows attackers like himself to gamble going forward. “He’s so much fun to play with. I always love a guy who can beat his man easily – and believe me Jahmir does it with ease. He opens up spaces where I can do my thing.”
Space & Time
In all fairness, Hoesen doesn’t need much space. The straight-talking Dutchman, trying to rehabilitate his career after a few tricky seasons in the Lowlands, loves a crowded penalty area. In the Round of 16 game against Seattle Sounders, he wriggled past three defenders in a postage stamp-sized corner of the box before scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory. “I had to improvise the whole thing,” he admitted, chuckling, with two goals under his belt in this Open Cup campaign. “I wanted to shoot early, but I knew it would get blocked, so I just started moving and cutting to see if I could go around them all. In the end, it worked.”
A good coach could carve out a respectable Cup run on the strengths of Hyka and Hoesen alone. But San Jose have a mix, and a vast array of attacking weapons, that’s beginning to look a bit like sorcery. Or Alchemy. In Jackson Yueill (20) and Tommy Thompson (21) they have eager young guns looking to make names. Up front there’s Chris Wondolowski – an MLS legend who makes up for what he lacks in speed with wisdom and guile and straight-up soccer smarts. The predator known as Wondo, the team’s all-time top-scorer, grabbed two in the last round and the free-flowing Quakes have seven goals from their three Open Cup games so far.
“We have the right mix,” said Hoesen who, along with Hyka, brings the Quakes a technical nous refined and smoothed on European fields. “Some have been around forever and they know all the tricks and others are just starting out and full of enthusiasm. You can’t say enough about Wondolowski, but guys like Thompson and Yeuill, I’ve been really impressed with the way they handle the stress in these big-time situations.”
All Fun and Games
“We’re having a lot of fun playing the game,” said Hyka, something you don’t hear very often from professional players. Maybe it’s just a given and something that goes without saying. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not always this much fun. “It’s not all the time you can say that in this game. But I can tell you this, we’re having a good time out on the pitch and it has everything to do with how we’re playing the game.”
Hyka was crucial in San Jose’s win over California rivals LA Galaxy in the Quarterfinal. And he’s not much interested in hiding his glee at getting one over on the enemy from down south. “That was particularly fun,” he said about the game where the Quakes went down early, being caught “still sleeping” according to Hyka before roaring back to win a 3-2 barnburner. “We kept the ball and made a lot of one-twos and moved them around a lot. Keep the other team moving and you make your job a lot easier.”
No wonder that it’s all smiles, high-fives and good-times in the Quakes camp. They’re stuck in the middle of the MLS Western Conference (only seven points out of first-place) but they’ve hit the kind of rhythm in the Open Cup that’s precious and rare. The mix is right, and often in Cup play it’s not the team designed and primed for long-haul title runs that gets to lift the trophy. You can’t speculate or play for draws and it’s all on the line every night. The team with the right mix and the most weapons can go all the way. Right now, that might be San Jose.
The theory will be put to the test on Wednesday in the Semifinal. The Earthquakes take on Sporting Kansas City who are considered by many to be the best team in MLS. They won the Open Cup in 2015 and are the only side among the remaining four to have lifted the Dewar Cup. They’ve yet to concede in their three games and their miserly defense will be the true test of San Jose’s freewheeling attack. It’s worth mentioning that SKC have scored nine goals overall and knocked out holders FC Dallas in the last round.
But Hyka has with a warning for Kansas City, the odds-on favorites who might be looking ahead to the Final without seeing the threat in front of their noses. “We’re not afraid of big, strong, physical teams. Here in San Jose we go a different way and we understand each other.” The brash and hungry Hoesen pulls no punches either, “We’re not here because we were lucky or we fought harder – we deserve to be here because we were the better team in the games we’ve played. We can do great things.”