Once an established MLS superpower, the San Jose Earthquakes again face the very real prospect of missing out on the playoffs this season.
The California side did make the post-season in 2020, but only by finishing eighth in an extended field. That represents one of just four playoff campaigns in their last 13 seasons and two in their last eight. Unacceptable for a club that won two MLS Cups and a Supporters' Shield shortly after the turn of the millenium, while lifting the latter again as recently as 2012.
Even so, the Quakes are often named among the most entertaining sides in MLS thanks to the all-action style of play implemented by head coach Matias Almeyda. The Argentine's approach is predicated on man-marking across the pitch and quick transitions and although it can be devastatingly effective, it also carries the likelihood of complete collapse if players lose their individual battles or have an off-day.
At present, San Jose sit 10th in the Western Conference, four points adrift of the playoff line. The Quakes' latest disappointment - a 1-0 defeat at home to the Colorado Rapids - came just when they looked like putting some consistency together, ending a run of 10 games without defeat with their three wins during that time coming in their last six outings.
Almeyda wasn't helped by having to withdraw striker Jeremy Ebobisse in the sixth minute after a clash of heads with Rapids defender Lalas Abubakar - also substituted - with young replacement Cade Cowell struggling to hold up the ball and connect with his teammates. Indeed, Cowell himself was brought off in the 78th minute.
With Ebobisse off the field, Cowell enduring one of those barren runs synonymous with emerging young talents and Cristian Espinoza only fit enough for a second-half substitute appearance, the Quakes struggled offensively, hitting just two shots on target and generating 1.1 expected goals.
Given the close nature of Quakes games this season - they haven't scored more than twice in their last 19 outings - firing a blank was always going to leave them in danger of defeat. Almeyda's side were finally punished by Dominique Badji in the 89th minute.
San Jose have 12 regular-season games remaining to drag themselves into the playoffs. But that will be no easy task with just six points separating Minnesota United in fifth and FC Dallas in 11th. No wonder, then, that Almeyda believes his side need three points from pretty much every one of their run-in matches.
"All games are must-wins," he told reporters after Saturday's match. "Today we played to win. It was reflected in the subs we made that we wanted to win. We didn't want to tie."
Quakes wideman Shea Salinas admitted there was 'frustration and disappointment' in the locker room after the match, knowing three points would have left them right on the cusp of the playoff spots.
Salinas said: "There are two feelings. There's a feeling of frustration knowing this is a big game. Looking at the table, three points would have helped us a ton, and a point would have been a little better. There's a feeling of frustration and disappointment, but we know there are 12 games left."
Next up for the Quakes is a critical clash against FC Dallas, another of those sides locked in the battle to make the playoffs. While failure to pick up results in these games and, ultimately, to qualify for the post-season is unlikely to cost Almeyda his job, it would leave both parties at a crossroads.
Almeyda is an attractive coach often linked with club and international jobs abroad, perhaps he'll start to wonder if his methods would be better served elsewhere. The Quakes, meanwhile, will also start to wonder just how to get over the playoff hump with a change in approach perhaps the best route forward.
With that in mind, Salinas highlighted the importance of these remaining Western Conference match-ups, giving teams the chance to take points from direct rivals.
"We have a big game against Dallas next week," he added. "A lot of these games are head-to-head West Coast games, so we have to put another run together."