February 15, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; SF Deltas defeated the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 at the San Jose Earthquakes practice field. Photo Credit: (Courtesy Kelley L Cox/KLC fotos for SF Deltas)

SF Deltas welcome challenge of playing Earthquakes during first act as franchise

The San Francisco Deltas, an expansion soccer team competing in the NASL, weren’t expected to click this fast.

Due to league regulations, they couldn’t acquire players under contract before their inaugural season, forcing coach Marc Dos Santos to assemble a squad of free agents.

Yet the Deltas have climbed to third place in the league and remain undefeated in away matches. They’ve also advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup — they’ll face the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday night.

“The first year is the most difficult year for an expansion team, but when we look at everything we’ve done, this team has shown incredible character,” Dos Santos said. “To be in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, to be in third place in the NASL, we have to be proud.”

Dos Santos arrived in San Francisco from his post at Sporting Kansas City affiliate Swope Park Rangers, electing to take the Deltas job to gain more roster control. By bringing in players with prior experience and building chemistry through game-oriented training sessions, he’s found quick success.

Defender Nana Attakora — set to return from a minor injury this week — credited Dos Santos and the location of the club for attracting quality players.

“With his reputation, it wasn’t hard for him to get the players he wanted,” Attakora said. “We’ve got a lot of experienced players and a lot of talent. … He built a strong roster, and we’re competing.”

Though San Francisco’s victories over NASL teams received limited attention, a U.S. Open Cup win at San Jose would represent a visible step forward. The Deltas are one of three NASL teams left in the tournament, which added MLS sides in the fourth round.

But San Francisco travelled to Puerto Rico for a league match this past weekend, while the Earthquakes haven’t played since June 2. That’s put the squad, already the underdogs entering the contest, at a further disadvantage.

Despite the challenge of facing San Jose at Avaya Stadium on short rest, Dos Santos insisted his players would maintain their attacking aggressiveness. The Deltas have scored at least twice in each of their past three contests.

“We play our game.” Dos Santos said. “We have a certain identity and it won’t change. This is who we are.”

Attakora knows the Earthquakes well, having played two stints in the South Bay earlier in his career. He acknowledged facing San Jose is “massive” for the club and city, but given the veterans on the team, the captain claimed the Deltas haven’t changed their mindset ahead of Wednesday’s clash.

“They’re human just like we’re human,” Attakora said. “There’s no super person on that team.”

Much of San Francisco’s roster has bounced between clubs at different levels. Forward Tommy Heinemann, for example, has played for nine different sides.

The Deltas welcomed players like him to their squad, hoping a collection of free agents could mesh into a productive unit.

Heinemann has recorded four goals in 12 games, including game-winning strikes in the second and third rounds of the U.S. Open Cup. Now, he’s eager to compete on the biggest stage in the club’s brief history.

“It’s just an opportunity,” Heinemann said. “We’re a new club and it’s [a chance] to gain further exposure. It’s an opportunity for the players to have exposure. … It will be special for our club.”

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