A week ago, the San Jose Earthquakes felt pretty good about themselves after enduring a difficult start to the season. They had earned four points over two away games and were back in the Bay Area for a home game against the worst team in the league. Momentum was on their side.
But a lethargic start Saturday night against D.C. United put the Quakes in a three-goal hole, and they never recovered, losing 3-1 and sinking to a new low. It was San Jose’s third loss of the season at Avaya Stadium, and it left fans frustrated. To put that in perspective, the team has not lost more than three home games in a season since the facility opened in 2015.
It is generally accepted knowledge around MLS that to qualify for the postseason, teams should look to win at home and draw on the road. There can be some anomalous results along the way — follow the plan perfectly and the 68 points earned would likely be Supporters’ Shield worthy — but playoffs-worthy teams don’t make too many missteps.
The Earthquakes are off to their second-worst start to a season since the club returned to MLS in 2008. Looking at the numbers in the table below, which shows each season’s 11-game record as well as the overall season results, the current Quakes are on pace to measure up to their first two years back as an expansion team.
That is not good.
For the past decade, San Jose’s approach has been to put together a squad that can compete for a playoff spot. That is to say, the Quakes are built to be a mid-table team and not a regular-season points leader. They strive to make the playoffs — doesn’t matter whether the club is the first or last qualifier — and then hope for a successful title run. In 10 previous seasons, the Earthquakes have accomplished that goal only three times (those seasons are highlighted in green in the table above).
The Quakes entered 2018 with high expectations. After storming out to a 3-0 lead against Minnesota United in the season opener, fans in San Jose and around the league took notice. And despite barely hanging on for a 3-2 win that evening at Avaya Stadium, their only home win of the campaign to date, the Earthquakes were the toast of the league.
But the euphoria didn’t last. Leading up to their May 12 win against the Loons — the Quakes probably wish they could play Minnesota every week — they were winless in seven games. MLS rookie head coach Mikael Stahre adjusted tactics and lineups game by game, and there was little rhythm generated on the field.
Still, the Earthquakes weren’t getting blown out in their mounting losses. The only games this season with a goal differential greater than 1 was their second win against MNUFC and last week’s 3-1 loss to DC United. The Quakes can hit the back of the net with regularity — they have been held scoreless just once in 2018 — but the defense has yet to claim a clean sheet this season.
Much is made of Expected Goals — a statistic that looks at the quality of scoring opportunities and computes how many goals should come as a result — and San Jose is performing almost exactly as, well, expected, based on numbers provided by American Soccer Analysis.
The Earthquakes’ goals for, goals against and goal differential look almost identical if you compare the actual numbers (18, 22, -4) to the calculated ones (15.1, 19.1, -3.9). The Quakes, by this metric, are the team they appear to be.
Another quantitative look at the league is provided by FiveThirtyEight, which used a mix of statistics and previous results to predict upcoming games. The Quakes don’t rate very well by this analysis, coming in at No. 22 out of the 23 MLS sides. The only team they are ranked above is, again, no surprise, Minnesota United. FiveThirtyEight determined the average simulated 2018 regular season for San Jose would end with 34 points — the lowest points-per-game number (1.00) since the disastrous 2014 campaign (0.88).
It’s obviously too early to close the book on the Earthquakes this season. After all, with more than two-thirds of the schedule left to play, there is ample time for Stahre to cement an identity in the team and find the right formation to get results. So while the numbers to date are far from promising, if the Quakes can make even the slightest of upticks, especially at home, then a lengthy summer of despair could be avoided.