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Blowout loss to LAFC leaves plenty of questions for San Jose Earthquakes

Elation for LAFC meant frustration for the San Jose Earthquakes following a 5-0 loss at Avaya Stadium. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes were completely dominated on Saturday by the visiting Los Angeles Football Club, losing 5-0 and matching their worst margin of defeat in their MLS history.

By the final whistle, most of the home crowd, announced at 18,000, had already made their way to the exits. A sizable contingent of traveling fans, bolstered by the well-organized 3252 supporters group, remained to celebrate with the triumphant LAFC players.

It was another nadir for Matias Almeyda and the Earthquakes, a team that is going to experience more lows than highs as it tries to turn its fortunes around under the heralded coach, the curator of projects.

In four successive games, all loses, the Quakes have conceded two, three, four, and, against LAFC, five goals — an arithmetic sequence that is both unwanted and unsustainable. Almeyda has brought new ideas and a new game plan to San Jose, but it is taking time to catch on.

Why did Almeyda not use all his subs?

The Earthquakes featured another wrinkle to their starting line-up, continuing the pattern of the last few games, in which Almeyda made adjustments to his defensive line. Against LAFC, it was Shea Salinas starting at left back for Nick Lima, the starter against the New York Red Bulls, who himself replaced Marcos Lopez, dealing with a nagging injury that kept him out of the gameday 18. Lima had started 37 games in a row for San Jose, included every game last season, before being benched by Almeyda.

It was a curious decision, as it meant the Quakes had two midfielders playing at the wide back positions against an LAFC team that features dynamic wingers in Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela. And, perhaps, to no one’s surprise, San Jose found themselves down 3-0 at halftime, as their defense, inside and outside, couldn’t execute on Almeyda’s game plan.

To begin the second half, the coach brought in reinforcements, adding Jackson Yueill for Judson in midfield and Danny Hoesen for Vako to join Chris Wondolowski at forward. Down by three, the Quakes needed to do something to spark the offense, but this only left the defense even more vulnerable, and eventually LAFC capitalized for two more goals. Almeyda elected to not use his third substitute, despite the ineffectual play on the field.

“We don’t have a very large squad,” Almeyda said through his translator. “On the bench, we only had two offensive players. We didn’t use our third sub because we didn’t want the third sub to feel guilty when they came on. In the most complicated part of the game is when I have to be paying the most attention to the other players because I have to be aware of other things. And I didn’t want them to be contaminated with the bad things that were going on during the match.”

He had Lima on the bench, a former youth-level forward who’s shown with the U.S. national team that he can play comfortably in a hybrid midfielder/defender role, to possibly add a spark to the team. The squad’s emotional leader in 2017, Florian Jungwirth, was also available. It’s likely that such veterans could be expected to handle such a demoralizing situation would they have entered.

“As a coach it is hard to plan subs before a match,” Almeyda said. “As the minutes go by, you start to see what is needed and you look for different characteristics and energies from the players that don’t start.”

Perhaps, Almeyda was looking out for the mental well-being of Luis Felipe and Eric Calvillo, two of the younger members of the squad on the bench Saturday afternoon. The coach has spoken fondly that the future of the Earthquakes is in the hands of the young players. After all, many of them came on and did well against Monterrey in last weekend’s friendly. Two players not in the 18 for LAFC impressed against the Liga MX side: Cade Cowell scored his first professional goal in the 2-1 loss, and Gilbert Fuentes made a solid appearance too.

“A week ago, we had a match in which we debuted a kid who was only 15 years old, and there was also a 17 year old,” Almeyda said. “We played a team, if you look at Monterrey and LA, they have both invested more money, and against Monterrey it was an even match.”

The coach implied that his veteran squad did not perform against LAFC to the level of his younger players against Monterrey, two clubs that have some of the highest player wages in their respective leagues. It was a bit of an apples-versus-oranges explanation, given that one game was a friendly and the other in league competition. Still, Almeyda did seem to be forecasting some significant changes to the line-up as the 2019 season progresses. He does not believe in the current line-up, especially after four consecutive losses.

“Like I said before, I think I have given a lot of time out of respect that I have for the players and now my mind will continue to spin until I have found the team that I have obviously not found,” Almeyda said. “So that means that the first one at fault is the head coach, which is me, because I am taking too long to find the team.”

Almeyda is certainly shaking up the status quo in San Jose. Whether or not it means good times ahead remains to be seen.

What was said in the post game closed-door meeting?

The historic loss to LAFC prompted Almeyda and his coaching staff to gather the team together in the locker room for a lengthy post game talk. The coach had just faced the press corps and shared his thoughts on the lack of execution by the team, notably from the opening whistle and throughout the entire game, and he carried that conversation forth in the locker room.

“We talked about how much we need to change,” Thompson said. “I mean there’s a lot wrong, the game plan we had was not executed and it wasn’t good enough for us, it wasn’t good enough for Matias, it wasn’t good enough for our fans. But like I said we’re going to continue doing everything we can to change it.”

Wondolowski, who remains stuck at 144 career MLS goals, one behind Landon Donovan’s record mark, after being shut out for the fourth consecutive game, has seen more than his fair share of struggles in San Jose. His afternoon did not involve very many touches on the ball, and he really only had one true try on goal. He shared that the closed-door session focused on every aspect of the game.

“First and foremost, our execution,” Wondolowski said. “If we come up with a game plan, we need to execute it a little bit better. We need to have a better attitude, a better mentality, and we have to do the little things a lot better whether it’s connecting passes, easy passes that we miss, or tracking runners. That what we need to do a lot better.”

Almeyda has not been shy in communicating with the players, spelling out his demands on the training field and in the locker room. For Thompson, who has seen his input in practice and games increase throughout preseason and into the regular campaign, he’s bought in on Almeyda’s messaging.

“We weren’t good enough today, it’s as simple as that,” Thompson said, “but no matter what happens, whether we lose 4-1 at New York Red Bulls or we lose 5-0 at home to LAFC, we’re going to keep believing. I think Matias has something special. We just talked for 30 minutes, and I think we’re going to have a different belief this year, but good things take time.”

No stranger to playing with purpose and passion, Wondolowski agreed that Almeyda brings a value to the team that extends beyond his motivating techniques. He experienced the same when on Bob Bradley’s U.S. national teams back when he earned his first caps for his country. The locker room talk was more about what the Quakes could take away from the afternoon’s disappointing 5-0 loss.

“This is a great teaching moment in the sense where we played an excellent team in LAFC,” Wondolowski said. “They came out, and their coach Bradley, he definitely had a game plan. He’s a great tactician, and I think they executed it. I’ve been able to play for both of them, and I think they’re the two best tactician coaches I’ve played for. We didn’t execute it and that’s the difference.”

How did native son Beitashour provide LAFC the edge?

Bradley, without a doubt, outcoached Almeyda, but he also had a talented roster to play with, and one player in particular with an extra dose of motivation. Steven Beitashour, a
San Jose native who began his professional career with the Earthquakes in 2010 and played four years for the Black and Blue, always enjoys coming back to the Bay Area.

“I was a ball boy here,” he shared after the game. “I always love playing in front of family and friends. I always try to put on a good performance for them. Any time I play here, I know a lot of family is watching, they want me to do well, but it’s always special playing here.”

Beitashour scored the second goal of the blowout, deftly poking home the ball from within the area after getting goal-side of Salinas and onto a through ball from the top of the box. He said his dad asked him to score a goal for him, and Beitashour was more than happy to deliver. The defender, who often finds himself advanced up the field, knew it wouldn’t have happened without a solid game plan to beat San Jose.

“Our staff are so detail oriented,” he said. “They looked at everything, from top to bottom. It’s a lot of preparation from them, and we have to give them credit, there wasn’t a stone unturned. They looked at everything, so we were prepared for this match, we knew it was going to be tough, the way they play, and so we were prepared, and we executed today.”

Back in February, the Earthquakes traveled to Los Angeles and handily beat LAFC 3-0 in a preseason game, Almeyda’s only victory so far. The new Quakes coach caught Bradley’s squad by surprise, but the loss turned out to be a pivotal point in their preseason preparation.

“Honestly, the preseason game against the Quakes was the best wake-up call for us,” Beitashour explained. “We thought we could just play our style, play pretty, and so when they came in, we’re playing man-to-man, we’re playing physical, and they handed us a nice little 3-0 defeat, from that point, it woke us up. That’s what we needed. It was a good test for us, and we are off to a good start.”

With 13 points in five games, no other team in MLS has been hotter to start the season, and the contrasting fortunes of San Jose and LAFC at this point were in stark display at Avaya Stadium. For Beitashour, it was in some measure bittersweet to see the team he cheered on as a kid, the team he watched play in the inaugural MLS game back in 1996, fall on such hard times.

“That won’t go away, so it hurts when I see them struggling,” Beitashour said. “But when we are playing against them, I know where my allegiances are, and we have to put in a good performance. The guys also know it’s kind of special for me when I come back here so I am thankful that they put in some extra effort for me as well.”

“Steven Beitashour is from here, and every time we come back it’s a really special game for him,” Bradley added. “It means a lot to the whole group when you see him play well and get a goal.”

Many Quakes supporters wish Beitashour was still in San Jose, playing for their side instead. He certainly received some cheers from the Avaya Stadium crowd, and not just from his family, on what was a special day for the fan favorite.

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