May 5, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Anibal Godoy (20) fouls Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8) during the first half at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Another game and another loss for the San Jose Earthquakes, as a late goal by Diego Valeri gave the Portland Timbers a 1-0 win at Avaya Stadium. The Quakes have now gone winless in seven games and claim the worst points-per-game mark in all of Major League Soccer.
Frustration in and out of the locker room came to a boil following Saturday night’s loss, as players and fans alike are not sure what to make of San Jose’s historically bad start to the season. The team will need to right the ship quickly, as the Quakes play four of their next five games on the road.
Boys among men
After giving up goals in seven straight games to start the campaign, the Earthquakes defense was in urgent need of a clean sheet. The offense had been getting on the scoreboard, but the team has been second best on the field week after week.
Head coach Mikael Stahre, still finding the balance in his tactical setup between pressing and defending, elected to go with a more organized approach against the Timbers, a team that likes to sit back and counterattack in transition. The Quakes held onto the ball and Portland was limited to only a handful of scoring opportunities, but the team’s passive play failed to find a breakthrough of its own.
And as the game dragged on, heading towards a scoreless tie before Valeri’s moment of brilliance, the tepidity was obvious to everyone in the stadium, including Florian Jungwirth, who didn’t mince words rating the performance following the game.
“Portland did not have shots, but we didn’t either,” Jungwirth said. “We lost a lot of balls in transition, and fortunately Portland didn’t play it well. Otherwise, we would have been in trouble. Tonight we played too naive. It was nothing to do with men’s soccer; it was youth soccer what we played, to be honest.”
It was a brutally honest assessment of the game coming from a player who since his arrival ahead of the 2017 season has never been shy about stating his mind. And it was a refreshing moment of self-realization that the team is not meeting its own expectations.
Tinker, tinker, MIkael Stahre
Even before Stahre arrived to coach the Quakes this season, general manager Jesse Fioranelli was already at work shaping the roster to play a cohesive style of soccer, emphasizing a shared responsibility of playmaking in the attacking corps and a strategy to keep the ball on the ground whenever possible.
It was a departure from the tactics of the past, and in many ways a departure from the strengths those previous squads featured. Since Fioranelli was hired in January 2017, there are 22 new players to MLS of 29 total on the roster — a significant turnover, which makes it more difficult to assemble around that new identity. Adding in a new coach on top of that requires a period of adjustment.
And it all hasn’t gone quite to plan, evident by the Quakes paltry 0.63 points per game nearly a quarter of the way into the season. Stahre had a brief preseason to implement his ideas to Fioranelli’s desired style of play.
The coach began the season with a stable starting XI, using the same squad for the first three games, but he’s abandoned that consistency as he learned what that group could provide. He benched talisman Chris Wondolowski in game five and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili in game six, both designated players who have been mainstays in the lineup. Stahre reinstituted them in recent games.
Against Portland, it was Jungwirth moving to centerback, a week after playing as a left back and two weeks after featuring in central midfielder. The versatile German player looked good in the back line, helping solidify a defense that had been porous in recent weeks. Stahre even made adjustments within the game against the Timbers, though it wasn’t enough to prevent the Quakes’ winless streak from hitting seven games.
“Sometimes we were a little bit sloppy,” Stahre said in his postgame comments. “I think both [Anibal] Godoy and Jackson [Yueill] were better and better. In the second half, we possessed the ball much better and we also made changes a little bit. We put Vako as a 10 and at that point we combined and played better and better. Today we lost quality in the box actually. We created some opportunities, but not big chances.”
The coach hinted he will continue to tinker with the lineup moving forward. There is work still to be done to integrate the desired system of play with the individual skill sets of his players.
“Yes, of course it is a process, but we have to win games in the same times,” Stahre said. “That’s not an excuse. We have to improve and to build a new identity and how we play, but at the same time, we have to win games, that is crystal clear.”
On the surface, what’s on display in San Jose is not pretty. The flaws in the team’s performances have been fatal, and Lady Luck has kept her distance from Avaya Stadium. Jungwirth’s frustration with himself and his teammates is a culmination of weeks of less than 100 percent perceived effort, and fans have railed on the club over social media. It’s been 65 days and counting since the Quakes’ one and only victory of the campaign.
Across the locker room from Jungwirth’s stall is that belonging to Shea Salinas. The Quakes’ first draft pick of 2008 is now in his 11th MLS season, and he’s second in tenure on the team to only captain Wondolowski. He’s seen everything in his career, and still the Earthquakes’ slow start to the year has been a bit demoralizing.
“It’s definitely frustrating to not get a victory after so long,” Salinas said. “We’ve been in the games. We’ve played inconsistently, but when we’ve played well it’s been good. We have to look at the things we’re doing well and try to be more consistent with it.”
It wasn’t as self-critical a statement as his teammate’s, but it was still an honest assessment that speaks volumes about his concerns eight games into the season. There is a lot more soccer to be played in the campaign, and the Quakes still have time to climb their way up the standings — but only if they start winning.
“Being in the league 11 years, it’s going to be seasons of ups and downs,” Salinas said, “so it’s important to remember when you are in these down moments, not to quit, not to give up on your teammates and not to give up on yourself. Keep fighting and working hard because you are always in it. It’s amazing how tight the league is, so that’s what we have to keep focusing on.”