SAN JOSE, Calif. — While most Major League Soccer teams travel home between road games, especially when those games fall a week apart on the calendar, the San Jose Earthquakes decided to extend their stay away from the Bay Area in between road games against Orlando City and the Columbus Crew.
The Quakes are winless in their last five matches following a 3-2 defeat Saturday to the Lions, so instead of flying back and forth across the country, they elected to remain in Florida for a regular schedule of training sessions before heading to Ohio.
Head coach Mikael Stahre, who is trying to remain positive about the team’s performances despite the results, is pleased with the way his players have responded to the unusual travel arrangements.
“It has been good for us, to be sure,” Stahre said by phone from Florida. “We are working hard in training. It is always hard to handle defeats and weak results, but the players are working really hard and showing lots of spirit and energy, and that’s really good.”
The Earthquakes nearly stole a point from Orlando, as Florian Jungwirth scored twice in the last 12 minutes of the game to nearly erase a three-goal deficient. It was a heroic attempt at a comeback by the German midfielder, but it only served to gloss over what was a difficult night for San Jose.
“It is hard to win in this league,” Stahre said. “Orlando was a good opponent and it was a hard away game. We did score two goals at the end, but they could have won 4-1, I have to be frank about that.”
As he did the game before — a 2-2 draw against the Houston Dynamo — Stahre made some significant adjustments to his starting lineup. Previously it was Quakes’ captain Chris Wondolowski being sent to the bench in an eye-opening move. Against the Lions, the rookie MLS coach decided to sit his most productive offensive player, Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili.
Both came on as substitutes in their respective games on the bench, but it was a decision that put every player on the roster on notice that starting roles should not be taken for granted.
“It’s an important thing to be flexible,” Stahre said. “We have not had many issues with injuries and availability, and we only have three subs a game, so some players will not get to play. It’s important that all players perform in training sessions and also in games. This gives us options.”
Stahre’s biggest challenge since taking over the head coaching job in San Jose has been meshing his tactical philosophy with the roster he’s inherited. For the first four games of the season, the Quakes’ lineup was fairly settled, but now the coach is looking at other combinations of players to get the most out of the squad.
Against the Dynamo, Wondolowski was benched in order to get another central midfielder into the formation with the goal of controlling the possession battle. At Orlando, Vako sat as Jahmir Hyka was handed his first start of the season following the Albanian’s game-tying goal the week before against Houston.
But instability on the defensive line has been the Quakes’ Achilles’ heel this season. In six games, San Jose has allowed 13 goals. And despite featuring an offense that has found the back of the net 11 times in those games, the Quakes sit near the bottom of the Western Conference with only five points.
“We must concede fewer goals and we will give us a better chance to win,” Stahre said. “It can’t be that we have to score three goals to win a game. In the long term, that is too much.”
San Jose will welcome centerback Harold Cummings back into the fold this week following the end of his two-game suspension. The Panamanian defender was spelled effectively by Swiss centerback Francois Affolter, so there is no guarantee he returns directly to the starting lineup. Yeferson Quintana, the other centerback and starter of all six Quakes games so far this season, could also be a candidate to slide to the bench in favor of Cummings.
Stahre has tried different setups along the back line that have at times kept opposing attackers from finding a rhythm. Whether it be playing his wingbacks higher up the field, or asking Jungwirth to drop centrally between the centerbacks from his defensive midfielder role, or even instructing goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell to change his distribution strategy, the Swedish coach is quick to adjust the game plan as situations demand it.
“You have to realize that there are a lot of goals in this league, that’s for sure,” Stahre said, “and it makes it tough on the defense. We have to find the balance, we have to improve our offense and our ball possession and not give up so many turnovers, but also defend in a smart and collective way.”
From top to bottom, the Earthquakes’ formation is still a work in progress. With a week away from the distractions of home, Stahre hopes to put together the puzzle pieces in just the right way to reverse the team’s poor start to the season.