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Family atmosphere boosts Quakes’ confidence, cohesiveness

“I think we’re on the right path.” – San Jose Earthquakes head coach Matías Almeyda

Chris Wondolowski celebrates his MLS record 43rd game winning goal as the San Jose Earthquakes defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1 at BC Place. (Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes are currently the hottest team in Major League Soccer, rolling opponents in impressive fashion and putting up monstrous numbers on offense. Once left for dead following four straight losses to open the season, they are now fifth in the Western Conference and surging ever higher week by week.

The Quakes’ relentless style of play, which features an aggressive man-marking defensive scheme and a quick transition into an attacking formation, has resulted in five wins in their past six games, each one featuring an average of just under 25 shots. In successive weeks, San Jose beat the LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps, both on the road, both by a scoreline of 3-1, while taking a combined 64 shots — an MLS record for a two-game stretch.

No longer are the Earthquakes an afterthought, a rudderless boat on the choppy seas of MLS. Instead, they are the team making waves, and steadily, since that disastrous opening month of the season, they have become the must-see team in MLS.

“I think it was a combination of a bunch of things,” veteran midfielder Shea Salinas said following the win at Vancouver. “I think it took us a little bit to get used to the system, and honestly buy into the system, have confidence in it. Once we were able to buy in and get everyone on the same page, we just had a team belief about us that keeps us in games and keeps us tough. We want to be a team that’s very difficult to play against and I think we’ve done that.”

Salinas, 33, who began his MLS career with the Quakes back in 2008 and has played all but two seasons in San Jose, is enjoying his most productive campaign yet, scoring five goals and adding three assists in 17 appearances. His resurgence comes as a revelation, given two sub-par years played mostly as a defender, and it is in no small part due to the new man in charge in San Jose, head coach Matías Almeyda.

“He could have come in, and just totally cleaned house and change personnel, and he didn’t do that,” Salinas said. “So that, as a player, that gives you confidence that you’re wanted — and even after the first four games, after losing those four games, he said this is my group of guys, this team can win games, and it’s been awesome to see that belief turn into reality.”

Almeyda was hired last fall to take over a team that was finishing its worst season ever and, somehow, bring it back to respectability. The former Chivas de Guadalajara manager resurrected that storied club when he arrived in Mexico in 2015, leading it to multiple titles, including the 2018 Concacaf Champions League. Almeyda spoke about a four-year plan to revive the Quakes. In parity-driven MLS, the coach has barely needed four months to make significant progress.

“It makes me happy because that was one of the objectives I set when I arrived,” Almeyda said during his midweek press conference. “It was difficult because the team had a bad season last year. It was also hard because many of them come from different cultures and backgrounds. To create a family made up of different cultures, different lifestyles in which everyone can be better, is gratifying for me as a coach.”

Almeyda’s simple, but welcome, approach to team building included everyone in the franchise, from the front office, to the support staff, to each and every player. He challenged individuals to move out of their comfort zones, to put the goals of the team first in every aspect, but he also preached a need to love the game and to find joy in the day-to-day grind that is a part of being a professional. Some players adopted his philosophy right away, while others took time to adjust. Now, just past the midway point of the season, Almeyda’s belief in the team and his players’ embrace of his message have the parts fitting together as one.

“I think that’s huge,” team captain Chris Wondolowski said last weekend. “I think that it’s momentous and that it helps us. We know each other; we know what our potential was. We didn’t play up to it and weren’t doing the little things last year and getting punished and rightfully so. And again, with coach Matías and his staff, he’s been able to iron out a lot of those details and really give us an identity of who we want to be and how we want to play and I think you’re starting to see it.”

Wondolowski scored the game winning goal in the Quakes’ 3-1 win against the Whitecaps, raising his season total to nine, best on the team. With one more goal, the MLS all-time scoring leader will reach double-digits for the 10th straight season — a mark that will stand the test of time long after the 36-year-old striker eventually retires. Wondo has experienced his share of ups and downs in San Jose, but he never wavered on this current squad, not even after the 0-4 start to the season.

“I think that, to be honest, not to be too cliché but we felt it from day one, things were really rolling our way,” Wondolowski said. “We got off to a really poor start, but now the confidence is building, it’s kind of snowballing in there and I think that something that coach Matias has told us from day one is enjoy the special moments that football brings to you, and if you win on the road, enjoy it. It’s done tomorrow, we’re back to work but we always put in a hard week’s work but enjoy today.”

Wondolowski scored his third game-winning goal of the season and league-record 43rd of his career in Vancouver, and he extended his all-time MLS goals record to 153. He even added an assist on the night, his first of the season, giving him an even 40 for his career. But he won’t, as he never has, simply rest on those laurels. He will be the first one on and the last one off the training field as the team prepares for its upcoming game at home against the Colorado Rapids, something Almeyda values in the model Wondolowski provides his teammates.

“There is a work method the team has understood,” Almeyda said. “We all train the same way; we take it seriously, show love and passion regardless if things or going well or not. That doesn’t require an explanation. You can see and feel it. It’s how we stay on the same path.”

The Earthquakes play the Rapids twice in the next four games, with the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City the other two opponents. Surging San Jose will want to take maximum points in all four and build even more momentum ahead of a showdown against Supporters’ Shield leaders Los Angeles FC on August 21. After all, it was LAFC that pummelled the Quakes 5-0 back in March, the nadir of the season, and the point at which San Jose’s results turned. The highly anticipated rematch will only grow in stature should the Quakes continue their winning ways.

“Time will always set everything in its place,” Almeyda said, “and the unity and confidence I have in them has been growing because I chose this team and kept 95% of the same roster. It shows confidence when a coach arrives to a team that’s been struggling, and it gives them confidence when I tell them to be happy and enjoy the game. I think we’re on the right path.”

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