SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes and new head coach Mikael Stahre have had the luxury so far this season of using the same starting XI in every game. Such consistency should allow the team to find its rhythm, especially as Stahre, a newcomer to Major League Soccer’s coaching ranks, implements his preferred style of play in San Jose.
The results have been mixed, however, as the Quakes won their season opener against Minnesota United then followed that up with back-to-back losses against Sporting Kansas City and New York City FC. Team chemistry is certainly improving, but Stahre hinted that a new starting squad might take the field for Saturday’s game at the Philadelphia Union.
“For me, we have put out the same lineup the last three games in a row and it gave us more stability,” Stahre said. “But now we have played three games, and I am open to changes. Maybe I keep the same lineup and exactly the same shape. Maybe I make some small changes. We’ll see.”
In Stahre’s first month in charge, he’s employed a 4-4-2 that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 depending on the situation. The Swedish coach encourages his front four to press high up the field and create turnovers, which also lets the fullbacks join in the attack on overlapping runs. San Jose’s offense has responded with six goals in three games, but the defense has allowed seven. That is not a sustainable trend for a team that hopes to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs for a second successive season.
“We have to be ruthless,” Quakes captain Chris Wondolowski said. “It’s something we need make sure we hone in on. It’s something we lacked at times, especially against New York. If we can have that killer instinct and be ruthless we can have a different game. Too many times we have let in goals in shorter time spans, and that’s not good enough.”
Wondolowski, 35, knows all too well that complacency on defense will be punished by MLS opponents. And with the influx of attacking players courtesy of Targeted Allocation Money signings, offenses around the league are more talented and effective than ever. He knows that lineup consistency can bear fruit, but he also recognizes the urgency to get results.
“Yeah, absolutely, it’s always important to have,” Wondolowski added. “Anytime you get the same guys out there, you can develop a chemistry. It’s very important, but after two losses, especially a home loss, I won’t be surprised if there are some changes, whether it’s myself or whoever, I think it could happen.”
Would Stahre bench the two-time Golden Boot winner with 135 career goals, only 10 behind Landon Donovan on the all-time MLS goal scoring list? In training this week, he has put every player to the test — starters and substitutes — as he looks for a combination that can reverse the team’s two game losing streak, and Wondolowski is not exempt from any possible changes.
“We have many good players on the bench, and we have great players out of the 18 also,” Stahre said, “So, sometimes a coach makes these kinds of decisions.”
If he did move to the bench, Wondolowski would be the perfect weapon to bring into games as a second-half substitute. But Wondolowski, along with forward Danny Hoesen and midfielder Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, who lead the team with two goals apiece, and newcomer Magnus Eriksson, the squad’s industrious winger in support, have shown they can produce on offense. Perhaps Wondolowski remains a starter and Stahre looks to make modifications in defense instead.
Almost the entire back line is new for San Jose this season, with second-year right back Nick Lima joined by Harold Cummings and Yeferson Quintana at centerback and veteran Shea Salinas on the left. Three games together allowed the defenders to develop a better feel for one another but they need to improve on the seven goals already allowed.
“I think it’s important,” Salinas said. “Once you get familiar with guys, it’s easier to know where they’re going to be, what they’re going to do, how to cover for each other. It’s a new back line, it’s a new midfield, so we’re still working on it. Three games of the same lineup has been great for us, but there is still a lot of work to be done. And we’ve lost two now, so the lineup might change, but it’s been good to play with the same guys for a few games now.”
Salinas, 31, has played at forward and midfield during his 11-year MLS career, but lately he’s seen more time as a defender. This season has been a tough adjustment for the veteran. He has produced mixed performances in all three games. Offseason signing Joel Qwiberg, who was in the 18 for the first time last weekend, could replace Salinas if Stahre elects to make changes to his back four.
“It is important to put your losses in perspective,” Salinas said. “We played two very good teams, and I think we played well for a lot or minutes during those games. It’s important not to beat yourself up about those two losses and get down on ourselves that we only have three points.”
A bounce here, a deflection there and the result against NYCFC could have gone San Jose’s way, and then perhaps the mood around Earthquakes training would be very different this week. It is not often that MLS teams can feature a consistent starting lineup, with injuries, suspensions and international absences to consider. San Jose has been fortunate over the first month of the season to have such consistency, something Stahre is considering ahead of the trip to Philadelphia.
Mar 31, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes defender Yeferson Quintana (30) celebrates after scoring a goal against the New York City FC during the first half at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
“In sports, results influence your mind a lot,” Stahre said. “I think, actually, the game against New York was our best performance this season, that’s for sure. We played against a really good team, and we conceded really, really few chances and also we created a lot of chances. In soccer, you can talk about so many situations in a game, you have the build up, you have the set pieces, and you can press them high, or low, or whatever. But at the end, it is about creating chances and avoiding chances. It is really important to remind ourselves of that.”
Another adjustment to tactics that Stahre has introduced this season is the pairing of Anibal Godoy and Florian Jungwirth in the center of the formation. Both players could be classified as defensive midfielders, which does lead to some issues when one or the other ventures into the attacking third. And while Godoy has balanced his responsibilities in midfield over the duration of his time in San Jose, Jungwirth is new to the role with the Quakes, as last season he was used almost exclusively as a centerback.
“We are still learning how to play together,” Godoy said through a translator. “It has only been a couple of games. We are finding a common philosophy on the field, and with the competitiveness inside the team. We have very good players on this team, so in training, we are trying to show our best.”
And so the dilemma for Stahre comes into focus: Does he continue to allow time his first-month starting XI to develop or does he make adjustments and changes based on recent results? With a difficult road game against Philadelphia up next, the coach will be looking for a balance in preparation and execution.
“They have their strong points and they have their weak points,” Stahre said, “and it up to me and the coaching staff to make the right decisions in making the game plan and regarding the lineup. I think we have a great chance to win the game against Philadelphia.”