SAN JOSE, Calif. — With rumors swirling about his future with the San Jose Earthquakes, Matias Almeyda strode to the dais in Avaya Stadium’s press room to take his customary seat ahead of his weekly news conference. He wore the same attire and backward Quakes cap he had all season, the emblem he committed to just 12 months ago when he signed a four-year contract to be San Jose’s head coach.
“You guys can ask anything you like,” Almeyda said, leaning back in his chair, “and I’ll respond with how I feel and with sincerity.”
For the past two weeks, the organization dealt with the distraction of their leader possibly leaving to take a similar post with Monterrey of Liga MX. The Mexican press was falling over themselves to report on the flirtation, something Almeyda admitted was a reality, but not one that progressed much beyond the conversations initiated by his agent in Mexico, Lalo Hernandez.
“Having Lalo Hernandez representing me in Mexican football, he had some meetings with people in Monterrey, in which I thanked them that they thought of me,” Almeyda said. “And keeping in mind the contract that I have here, I told them that I cannot keep going on with these talks because my mind is with the team and my players here in San Jose.”
Hernandez has worked with Almeyda since he signed with Chivas de Guadalajara in 2015, and the agent fielded numerous inquiries into Almeyda’s availability after he became the Earthquakes’ coach last October.
“Throughout the season, I’ve had different offers from different clubs and a national team from South America, which I didn’t talk about and people didn’t know about,” Almeyda said. “My mind was always here in San Jose.
“I have projected my life here now. Ethically and morally, it didn’t seem correct to keep talking about different offers.”
The opportunity to coach Los Rayados was one Almeyda had to consider. The Monterrey club has one of the most expensive rosters in Liga MX, and the resources are there to build it even stronger. Almeyda said any coach would want to dive headfirst into such a situation, but he never seriously considered the offer. He instead chose to honor his contract with the Earthquakes and said reports stating otherwise are “their own imagination and lies.”
Monterrey, publicly spurned by Almeyda, subsequently announced Antonio Mohamed, a veteran Liga MX coach who helmed the team once before, would take over.
Commitment to Quakes
Almeyda is no stranger to the soccer coaching carousel. Prior to his time with Chivas, he lead River Plate and Banfield in his native Argentina for two and three years, respectively. His tenure with Chivas, which included a 2018 Concacaf Champions League title, abruptly came to an end over disagreements with management.
“I’ve been with several clubs, in which, when I left, it was by mutual agreement,” Almeyda said. “But I don’t just change from one club to another. When I complain about there being a problem, as I see it, it’s because it’s fair.”
Almeyda sees himself as one who takes the high road when situations get rough. He’s shared many times his appreciation for Bushido, the unwritten Samurai code of conduct whereby true warriors must hold loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion and honor as virtues in life. He, again, invoked its principles in detailing his reasons for staying with San Jose.
“Coaches always get mad when we get fired, and we have to keep going and be coherent when we have a contract,” Almeyda said. “Although the tempting offers are 10 times what they are where you are at, I think it comes with the values my parents have given me, and with respect. I feel that respect is something that is getting lost throughout life. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve respected the people and I like to be respected in return.
“And I want to say to the people of San Jose: if anyone ever doubted in my word, get to know me. I’ve spoken about a code before and I try to carry that on in my life.”
Almeyda’s hiring following San Jose’s disastrous 2018 season raised eyebrows around the league. San Jose did not have a reputation of such economic largesse, and the Argentine did not come cheaply. Still, Almeyda, who saw the success of fellow countryman Gerardo “Tata” Martino with Atlanta United, calculated the move to MLS would serve his ambitions well.
“To many, it was strange coming to a team that was in last place, and out of all the offers that I had, economically it was the lowest one,” Almeyda said. “I decided to come here because I analyzed this club, I met with its directors and I believed in the project that we were starting. And we finished this season with, what I think, the results in our favor from what we had planned.”
The Earthquakes more than tripled their win total in 2019, and after a last-place finish under previous head coach Mikael Stahre, Almeyda lead the team, with more than four-fifths the same roster, to an eighth place finish in the Western Conference, just one spot out of qualifying for the postseason. Almeyda has has been frank that it will take more than a year to elevate the Quakes to playoff status, and he has no plans to walk away from that mission.
“I have a group of players for which I am grateful for the hard work they’ve put in,” Almeyda said. “There are staff, directors, the owner who’ve given me all that they can. And I am only left to say that I am grateful to be in this place, hopeful that this place will keep growing, that we can grow in terms of our standing every day. And that’s why changing clubs does not even cross my mind.”
Almeyda began his news conference promising to be honest and sincere, and just one question in, he laid all of his cards on the table.
“Although this season hasn’t really finished yet, we are programming what is to come,” Almeyda said. “We are sad because we could not keep going into the postseason, but at the same time we are enthusiastic because it seems like the next season begins now.”
Following the 2018 season, when the Earthquakes finished with a franchise-worst four wins, the temptation could have been for Almeyda to blow up the roster in his first months in charge. Instead, in some ways constrained by the squad provided to him by Fioranelli, the coach focused on who could work within the system of play he planned to install. A four-game losing streak to start the season did reveal some strengths and weaknesses in the roster, and by April, Almeyda had a player rotation he could trust.
By July, as the Quakes climbed briefly to second place in the West. The team — mostly holdovers from 2018, such as Chris Wondolowski, Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili and Magnus Eriksson — had some strong contributions from newcomers, such as goalkeeper Daniel Vega and midfielders Cristian Espinoza and Judson.
The project seemed to be on track. But the wheels loosened over the last two months of the season and the Earthquakes dropped nine of their last 11 games. It was nothing short of a collapse.
That’s why it’s difficult to say Almeyda’s first season in charge was a success, though their season came down to the last day, a winner-take-all contest against the Portland Timbers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The 3-1 loss to the Timbers on MLS Decision Day put the exclamation mark on a six-game losing streak to end the season. It appeared the players tired after being asked to execute a highly active style of play all year. Almeyda had the players in top shape, but using a very tight rotation over 34 games meant they didn’t have the energy to see those last six games to the finish line. The darlings of MLS during summer were just another footnote by the time the postseason began.
“For many, it was a huge surprise, and to many it wasn’t something that was real,” Almeyda said of those heady midseason days. “We promised to be a competitive group when I arrived here, and I thought we were. In fact, we were in it until the 70th minute of the last game.”
The final standings will show San Jose four points out of playoff position. Almeyda declined to go into specifics of what shortcomings he would address during the offseason, but did talk in platitudes, emphasizing that he saw adjustments the team could make on both offense and defense.
“There’s something good when you look at what happened,” Almeyda said of the 2019 season. “But to me, there are aspects that can be improved notably. We could have had four more points by conceding fewer goals and four more points by scoring more goals, which is eight more points total. And with those points, we would have easily been in the playoffs. So, we know what we have to improve.
“There’s work to be done, and we need to try to achieve it. I’ve always said there’s not a medicine you can simply buy to help you win. It doesn’t exist. But I believe you need to be self-critical and not try to cover the sun with just your finger.”
More than once during the news conference, Almeyda referenced MLS’ long offseason, half-joking that he hoped not to get fat during the inactivity. With over three months off until preseason camp begins, it will be important for he and the players to stick to a regimen that prepares them for the 2020 season.
He plans to sit down with general manager Jesse Fioranelli and the rest of the technical staff to go over the 2019 season. The evaluation will come through the lens of his four-year plan, looking at what strategies the franchise can use to bolster its roster within the constraints of its budget. He wouldn’t make big promises; rather, he preached a steady path to success.
“I’m enthusiastic that next year can be a lot better from the same effort or better,” Almeyda said. “We will look to correct things inside and outside of the football. We know there’s a difference between San Jose and the other clubs that have invested the most, but we don’t want our owner to invest millions. Our idea is to add more youngsters, as well as have some reinforcements come in, but not those stars that are unreachable. We believe in our game and our system of play, as well as our teamwork.
“We’ll talk with the directors and the front office and project where we want to get to and what we expect from ourselves. I don’t think there will be too many changes, but we’ll see.”
The team has already traded away Anibal Godoy to expansion side Nashville SC after the Panamanian lost his starting job to Judson.
Harold Cummings, his fellow countryman, was the odd man out at centerback, yielding time to both Florian Jungwirth and Guram Kashia, and it is unlikely he will continue with San Jose.
Nick Lima, who was finding success with the U.S. national team in 2019, always seemed to be in Almeyda’s doghouse, and it’s unclear what the defender’s plans will be moving forward.
But the biggest question marks heading into the offseason are the futures of Wondolowski and Espinoza, the team’s leading goal scorer and assist provider in 2019, respectively. Wondolowski, who at 36 years old defied the pull of father time, scored 15 goals this season, the fourth best outlay of his career and tied for fifth-best in MLS. Espinoza, the team’s Offensive Player of the Year who was on a one-year loan from Villarreal in La Liga, added 12 assists, the most by an Earthquakes player since Marvin Chavez notched the same number in 2012.
Both players are on the radar to return in 2020, according to Almeyda. Wondolowski has a contract offer on the table and negotiations with the MLS all-time leading goal scorer are ongoing. Almeyda also said Espinoza agreed to come back next season, so talks with Villarreal about a transfer or loan deal for 2020 will continue.
“We have to renew some contracts, and we will speak with some of the players,” Almeyda said. “There are some policies I plan to establish with the players, so I need to see who agrees, and together we’ll have a way to be more competitive and help the team grow.”
With his pledge to continue his project in San Jose, Almeyda will have a busy offseason preparing for his second year. His first year in MLS was a mixed bag with signs of improvement. The stakes and expectations will be higher next season, but Almeyda seems ready for the challenge.