SAN JOSE, Calif. — Last season, the San Jose Earthquakes were the first team in Major League Soccer history to finish in 23rd place. In 2019, they’ll try to avoid the ignominy of falling to even further depths — there are now 24 teams with the addition of expansion side FC Cincinnati — and earning their second straight Wooden Spoon.
The roster is largely the same as the one that won only four games all season, and only two in their home stadium, but the hiring of a completely new coaching staff, headlined by last year’s Concacaf Men’s Coach of the Year Matias Almeyda, has brought a healthy dose of optimism to San Jose supporters.
The former Chivas de Guadalajara manager has shown a knack for bringing teams back from the brink of relevancy, last year leading the Liga MX side to the regions Champions League title. If he is able to coax a double-digits win total from the Earthquakes in 2019, Almeyda will cement his status as a coaching comeback king.
But the coach is not the only focal point in the Bay Area soccer scene this season. Chris Wondolowski, who has obliterated nearly every offensive record in franchise history, is only two goals away from taking the top spot in the all-time MLS goals scored list, displacing the legend Landon Donovan. Wondo Watch will be a major story to start the season, as San Jose plays four of its first five games at Avaya Stadium, where all eyes will be on the Quakes captain as he looks to break the record.
The Earthquakes do welcome some new faces in 2019, with midfielders Cristian Espinoza and Judson the main signings, but the fate of the team will primarily rest on the returning players. Last year’s team MVP Danny Hoesen and Designated Player Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili will need to improve on their 2018 performances, while defender Nick Lima, fresh off his impressive performances with the U.S. men’s national team, needs to continue his upward trajectory.
Expectations outside San Jose are that the Earthquakes will finish the season well outside the seven playoff spots up for grabs in the West. But with Almeyda at the helm, and a rejuvenated roster more mentally prepared than before, the Quakes are seeking to be the surprise team in MLS in 2019.
San Jose seeks strong start when Montreal Impact visits
When: Saturday, March 2, 10:00 p.m. ET
Where: Avaya Stadium, San Jose, Calif.
Broadcast: TV — NBC Sports California; RADIO — KNBR 1050, 1370 KZSF (Spanish)
Live stream: ESPN+
The buzz: The Earthquakes new style of play is expected to emphasize aggressiveness on both sides of the ball, and everyone has been working overtime in preseason to learn Almeyda’s system. Best case scenario: the team puts on a fun and fluid performance against Montreal, earning San Jose it’s first win since topping FC Dallas Aug. 29. But if there are too many mistakes, certainly a possibility for a squad still adjusting to coach’s plan, 2018 may start much like 2019 finished.
Other key matches
April 6 vs Portland Timbers — The Quakes play four of their first five games at home, and they’ll be looking to reach double-digits in points during that span. The Timbers are always a tough assignment, but if Almeyda has built any momentum in the team, this game will mark his progress.
May 4 vs FC Cincinnati — The only team in MLS with lower expectations is the expansion side from Ohio. Former midfielder Fatai Alashe, who famously battled with former head coach Mikael Stahre in a game at Montreal last summer before being unceremoniously shipped to Cincinnati, will make his Avaya Stadium return. Loser of this match could have the inside track on finishing bottom of the MLS table.
June 29 vs LA Galaxy — The Earthquakes’ annual celebration of soccer returns to nearby Stanford Stadium, and more than 50,000 fans will be on hand to hopefully witness another Cali Clasico miracle. LA coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto previously guided Argentine super-club Boca Juniors, the arch rival of Almeyda’s former charge, River Plate, adding another level of intrigue to the game.
September 21 at Atlanta United — The defending MLS Cup champion comes late in the season, and the Quakes will look for revenge. Last season, in controversial (see: VAR) fashion, San Jose saw what looked like a victory turn into a gut-wrenching stoppage-time defeat.
Quotes & notes
The Quakes were the worst team in the league last season on many fronts, but one statistic was especially troublesome: they dropped the most points from a winning position of any other team in MLS. The inability of San Jose to shake off adversity was a big part of its collapse, especially over the summer. The mental fortitude was not there, and the results suffered.
Nick Lima on moving forward after last year’s disappointment:
“It is about not being the victim,” Lima said following the 2-2 comeback against Seattle. “Last year, there were times when we thought we were the victims, and we weren’t able to dig deep and keep doing what we needed to keep doing.”
Wondolowski on the new coach’s message:
“A lot of the message has been about bringing the best out of yourself, and also the unity,” Wondolowski said prior to leaving for preseason training camp in Mexico. “Having a locker room mentality that there will be no cliques and everyone coming together and having that brotherhood is the basic message.”
Wondolowski himself, weeks after celebrating his 36th birthday, may be playing his last season with the Earthquakes. He has set personal goals this season of winning trophies, but whether he comes back again in 2020, regardless of the team’s fortunes, is still to be decided.
Wondolowski on potentially playing his final season:
“It’s kind of one of those things we are feeling out,” he said “It is really going to be one of those long sitdown talks — and that’s why I won’t be surprised if this season is it. And that being said, it is why I want to go out there and enjoy every second of it.”
One player that will be under scrutiny in 2019 is Magnus Eriksson, who last year arrived as the scoring champion of the Swedish first division and with a Designated Player contract. He underperformed by many accounts, but with the trust of Almeyda, the midfielder, along with all the returning players from 2018, is hoping to make a difference this season.
Magnus Eriksson on bouncing back from a lackluster first season:
“Yeah, we have some new guys on the team, but most of the guys are still here,” he said. “Together, we have a great group of people and players, and with Matias and his coaching staff, with their philosophy and soccer, we have to adapt to that, and we are working really hard every day to do that.”
For Almeyda, the season opener against Montreal is a chance to set the tone for the remainder of the year and beyond.
“I think at the beginning of a new season, there’s something deeper than the first result,” Almeyda said in his weekly press conference. “There are a lot of dreams, a lot of objectives, a new life, and a positive start is always good, but we know this team won only four games in a year, so we need to go by steps, and above all, playing a system that will permit us to win over time.”
Biggest offseason moves
- Completely revamped coaching staff, handing over reins to Matias Almeyda.
- Signed dynamic midfielder Cristian Espinoza on loan from Villarreal to provide more speed and technical play on the wings.
- Completed transfer of 19-year-old Peruvian left back Marcos Lopez to fill the team’s most pressing need: left back.
- Added veteran goalkeeper Daniel Vega to provide stability and leadership to a young and developing corps of ‘keepers.
- Signed Quakes Academy forward Cade Cowell, just 15 years old, to a Homegrown Player contract.
- Released fan-favorite midfielder and notorious FC Dallas foil Jahmir “Hykachu” Hyka after an up and down season.
- Signed Brazilian defensive midfielder Judson to bolster a squad that gave up the most goals in the Western Conference in 2018.
Forwards — Cade Cowell, 15; Cristian Espinoza, 23; Danny Hoesen, 28; Chris Wondolowski, 36
Midfielders — Eric Calvillo, 21; Magnus Eriksson, 28; Luis Felipe, 23; Gilbert Fuentes, 17; Anibal Godoy, 29; Siad Haji, 19; Judson, 25; Florian Jungwirth, 30; Kevin Partida, 23; Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, 26; Shea Salinas, 32; Tommy Thompson, 23; Jackson Yueill, 20
Defenders — Francois Affolter, 27; Jacob Akanyirige, 17; Harold Cummings, 27; Guram Kashia, 31; Nick Lima, 24; Marcos Lopez, 19; Paul Marie, 23; Jimmy Ockford, 27; Joel Qwiberg, 26
Goalkeepers — Matt Bersano, 25; JT Marcinkowski, 20; Andrew Tarbell, 24; Daniel Vega, 34