SAN JOSE, Calif. — After suffering a second straight loss to open the 2019 season, both at their home stadium, the San Jose Earthquakes sit bottom of the MLS table. It’s a familiar locale for the franchise, which finished off the previous campaign in the very same position.
The introduction of new head coach Matias Almeyda and a commitment to overhauling nearly the entire technical staff was a bold response by the organization, and the Argentinean has certainly transformed the team in his two months in charge. The immediate results have been disappointing, but it’s the long-term plan that’s at play.
“First and most important is we shouldn’t mention the previous seasons anymore,” Almeyda said via translation. “I have played football and know the doubts that can come following negative performances. We are still in the middle of making that change. A victory will provide them the confidence that is so far missing.”
When Almeyda was hired, general manager Jesse Fioranelli, who knows the coach from his playing days in Italy and shares a common vision for developing a success club, said to expect a culture change with the former Chivas manager in charge. A new mentality and a new style of play that could make the Quakes competitive in a vastly and fastly improving MLS. It would be a project that went beyond simply tinkering with the squad; it will be a complete rebuild.
Such an ambitious project has numerous moving parts, the first involving the turnover of the coaching staff. Fioranelli managed to acquire four new players in the offseason, all introduced into the starting eleven, but Almeyda inherited a mostly intact roster upon his arrival, and his task from day one is to guide them through the adaptation of his system, mentally and physically, on and off the field.
No one expected this second task to be easy, but patience is thin within a fanbase for a franchise that seems to be in perpetual rebuilding mode. Chris Wondolowski, who’s experienced more than his fair share of downs during his Quakes tenure, preached urgency from his teammates in adapting to Almeyda’s plan following the 3-0 loss to Minnesota United.
“It’s got to happen,” Wondolowski said. “I think we are understanding it, but it comes down to individuals being out there collectively and understanding one another and working together. That needs to continue to happen, and hopefully soon.”
With Chivas, Almeyda fielded a lineup that was less a rigid formation of offensive and defensive lines; rather, it was a more uniform collection of similar talents — those generally associated with midfielders — with some specialization relative to their primary responsibilities on the field. It features a man-marking system with plenty of movement and precisely connected roles, as players need to quickly react to situations on both sides of the ball.
One thing that it’s not is a secret, and coaches in MLS are doing their homework to learn its weaknesses.
“We worked all week on their shape, because they do play differently than every other team in the league, play virtually man for man, and let your centerbacks have it,” said Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath. “The trick for us, the issue for us, was could we make the right decision when we get halfway in their half, and I think we did on the whole. It is not an easy system to play against, but all the stuff we worked on during the week pretty much came through.”
And, thus, the conundrum for the Earthquakes is whether they can keep ahead of the learning curve and outplay their better prepared foes. It’s a sight to see when the frenetic Quakes suffocate the opponent, tapping the ball around at will — San Jose featured 57.3% of the possession against the Loons, though much of that advantage came after the visitors had scored — but it wasn’t consistent enough on Saturday, and Minnesota waited for its own opportunities.
“In the first half, I saw a team with doubts,” Almeyda said. “A team with a lot of defensive errors.”
Even with a halftime talk geared at rallying and resetting the team, the Earthquakes got off to a horrible start to the second half. First was a penalty kick, awarded through VAR, and a poorly defended counterattack after the ball turned over on an unsuccessful corner kick. The Quakes had spent considerable time working on set-pieces during training all week, so to see them not execute properly was disappointing.
“When we have situations like that, it calls for smart fouls,” defender Guram Kashia explained after the game. “One of our players has to take a quick foul, even it earns a yellow card, and we failed there. In today’s soccer, all opposing teams look to take advantage of the counterattack. We failed in this phase because we need to be sharp and think in these situations. It was not any individual that failed, it was a team failure. We worked on it, and the coach gave us that task to commit that foul, and we didn’t do it.”
Down 2-0 to MNUFC, the Earthquakes deviated from the game plan and reverted to an all too familiar style for San Jose: lumping crosses into the box and hoping for the best.
“We became desperate and depended on crossing the ball, even though we knew their aerial game was strong,” Almeyda said through a translator. We made mistakes, we have to watch the game and get a lot better.”
And when the Loons stretched their lead to 3-0 following Harold Cummings’s unfortunate own goal, the Quakes never recovered. By the final whistle, the home side had attempted 35 crosses (for comparison, Minnesota attempted 6) and taken only 4 shots on goal. Minnesota had dared San Jose to stay outside and lump the ball inwards, right into their heart of their defensive formation, where centerbacks Ike Opara and Michael Boxall took care of business.
Wondolowski did get one more chance to score, a goal that would have pulled him level with Landon Donovan for the MLS all-time goal scoring lead, and it came off a low, hard cross — the very type of pass Almeyda demanded. The coach took the blame for the team’s failed execution of his plan, but he was not the only person at fault.
“There were some bad breaks, but to be honest it has nothing to do with our skills or our attributes, it’s our thinking,” Wondolowski said. “We need to think our way through a game and understand what it takes to play ninety minutes mentally.”
In two home games, Magnus Eriksson has scored the only goal for San Jose — a textbook opportunity that came through quick passes in tight coverage at the top of the area. It is the template that Almeyda wants his attackers to follow, adding in more penetration via low crosses from the flanks. Opponents know it too, and the Earthquakes will need to improve, or bring in difference makers in the summer, to stay a step ahead.
“It’s a long season, and these types of games will happen again,” Kashia said. “It’s bad that, from the beginning of the season, these games happen to us. We lose the big result in a home game, but it’s not shocking or something. It’s not a crisis. It is a bad performance from us, and that’s it. I am really confident that we will make a good season, we will make the playoffs.”
There are still 32 games left to play, and despite the historically poor start at home, the Earthquakes need only win half of their games to make the playoffs. The defender is not wrong to avoid pressing the panic button, but he, the rest of the team, and the coaching staff, need to earn points sooner than later to build confidence. Their next chance comes on Saturday in a nationally televised game at the New York Red Bulls.
“I still have the same optimism, I still have the same belief, it hasn’t wavered one bit,” Wondolowski said. “It’s still here in this locker room, and I really feel coming out next week against New York will be a tough one, but we’ve got to get a result.”