Apr 28, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC defender Harrison Afful (25) shoots the ball on goal and scores in the first half against the San Jose Earthquakes at MAPFRE Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
When the San Jose Earthquakes stepped off the field on opening day of the 2018 MLS season as 3-2 winners against Minnesota United, the team projected assured confidence and expectations of a strong season.
Fast forward two months, and the Quakes fly home from Ohio after dropping a 2-1 contest to the Columbus Crew. They are winless in six games since that hopeful result against the Loons. The team is struggling to find any consistency on offense or defense, and the restless element of the fan base has begun to question whether San Jose is a playoff-caliber team.
The Earthquakes now return home to face the Portland Timbers — a team that has won two straight following their own early-season string of poor results — with one goal in mind: put a halt to their six-game winless streak and begin building momentum ahead of a tough May schedule.
Looking back at the 2-1 loss to the Crew and ahead to the game against the Timbers for lessons learned, here are the three most important items on the Quakes’ to-do list in what is a pivotal point in the campaign.
Be confident, but be realistic
The Earthquakes are off to their worst start to a season since 2011, when after seven games they had an identical 1-4-2 record. That team was living off raised expectations from a surprise playoff run the year before, feeding off the newly discovered goal-scoring prowess of reigning MLS Golden Boot champion Chris Wondolowski, but it never kicked into gear and San Jose finished far down the table.
This season, in a league vastly better top to bottom than in 2011, the Quakes need to improve immediately if they are to avoid the same outcome. The games in 2018 have so far been tight — the goal differential in all seven games has not been greater than one — so it may not take a massive change to make up the difference and turn losses into ties and ties into wins.
But for a team that has been punished for every mistake it’s made, the Earthquakes can’t just sit back and hope everything evens out. Yes, it is important to keep in mind the positives, but the bulk of attention must be focused on fixing that which is ailing the team.
“We have scored every game now,” Danny Hoesen said following the loss at Columbus. “It’s unfortunate that we concede goals, and most of the time it’s by our own mistakes. I don’t think there are a lot of teams that break us down, like combine around us and score. I think most of the time it’s one of us making a mistake.”
New head coach Mikael Stahre inherited a team that in 2017 was horrendous on the road and solid at home. Along with returning starters like Hoesen, the rookie MLS coach is leaning on Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, Wondolowski, and newcomer Magnus Eriksson to power the offense. But, as Hoesen recognized, it is not the goal scoring that is the problem — it is a porous and unsettled defense.
In their last two games, losses to the Crew and Orlando City SC, the Earthquakes have used six different players along their back four. Second-year starter Nick Lima has been the most consistent defender for San Jose this season and emergency fullback Florian Jungwirth has been the most effective. Centerback has been the team’s most apparent Achilles’ heel in 2018.
“We played against a really good team tonight, so I think the fighting spirit, the identity and the plan in general went well, but there is a fine line between winning and losing,” Stahre said in his postgame comments. “You have to deserve that luck and have to move forward and work harder, so hopefully we can perform better and win some games really soon.”
No one would claim that Stahre is a head coaching Pollyanna — he works very hard behind the scenes to get his team prepared for games — but if those wins don’t come soon, he’ll be feeling the fire beneath his feet.
Regroup and refocus
Avaya Stadium was a fortress last season, as San Jose rode its home results to an MLS playoff berth. This year, the atmosphere has been less than imposing in the three games played in friendly confines. In the team’s last game at Avaya, a less-than-capacity crowd witnessed the Quakes’ fortunate 2-2 tie with the Houston Dynamo.
In MLS, home results take on added significance given the time and distance required for most away games. The mantra has always been to take care of business at home, nick a few points on the road, and qualify for the postseason. These Quakes are doing neither of the first two, and most certainly won’t enjoy the last unless their performances change.
Stahre had the full attention of his squad last week, as the entire team stayed away from the Bay Area in between games at Orlando and Columbus. It was a chance to get in some extra team bonding exercises, perhaps provide a rallying point in a season that needs a shake up.
The results didn’t go their way, but if the Earthquakes can build on last week’s experience with a solid five days of training in San Jose, they have every chance on breaking their six-game winless streak this Saturday against Portland.
Prepare — don’t panic
Stahre has shown in his short time in charge of the Earthquakes that he is not afraid to make changes, big and small, to the formation and lineup. With the results not currently to the team’s benefit, it would be logical to act boldly and turn the starting XI on its head. The Swede is unlikely to do so and, really, he shouldn’t.
The Quakes play their next three games against Western Conference opponents, after playing four of their last five against foes from the East. Losing those interconference games is not as damaging to San Jose’s fortunes as it would be to drop points in these upcoming games. Stahre knows how the league is set up, and he will prepare his team accordingly.
Against the Crew, with the game tied late, Stahre used Quincy Amarikwa as a substitute, eschewing the opportunity to bring in a more defensive-minded player to secure a point on the road. The coach wanted all three points offered, and that is exactly the mentality the team should have against the East.
For games against the Timbers, and at Minnesota and Vancouver, the mindset has to be one of more pragmatic tactics. Stahre still needs to set the team up to win, but he has to be especially cautious not to put his suspect defense at risk.
Jungwirth needs to stay on the back line — Shea Salinas and Joel Qwiberg have had a tough go of it at left back — and Harold Cummings and Francois Affolter need to pair at centerback. Perhaps Fatai Alashe needs to see minutes as a defensive midfielder, or Anibal Godoy, great in possession, bring more fight to the center of the park and protect the defense more effectively.
Stahre will have his work cut out for him this week in preparing for Portland. It’s still too early in the season to write off these Quakes, but if results don’t improve in the next two weeks, it will be a long and drawn out summer in San Jose.