SAN JOSE, Calif. — With literally no where to look but up, the San Jose Earthquakes set about preparing for the 2019 MLS season even before the prior one had finished. The movement started last October, when highly touted manager Matias Almeyda was hired as the Quakes new head coach, and the club has been marching steadily forward ever since.
The addition of Almeyda, as well as an almost entirely new coaching staff, was not suddenly going to turn the Earthquakes into MLS Cup contenders, but it marked an intent to reign in a squad that had floundered through the second half of the 2018 campaign. San Jose’s four league wins was an all-time franchise low and an embarrassment to everyone in the organization.
General manager Jesse Fioranelli couldn’t simply clean house on the roster — not with so many guaranteed contracts and the costs of player acquisition so high — so hiring an inspirational leader like Almeyda was the next best thing. Fioranelli did add some new players in the offseason, with midfielders Judson and Cristian Espinoza being the two most important, but Almeyda was going to have to work with a lot of existing guys who suffered through last season.
“The most important thing is to have an identity of the game and play the same way,” Almeyda said at the start of preseason. “We are looking to create a competitive team with a winning mentality. And we are looking to develop a strong sense of teamwork.”
The entire squad spent the first two-plus weeks training in Cancun, Mexico, away from the Bay Area and the trappings of home. Almeyda had the players running two-a-day drills and committing to a level of fitness requirement to implement his man-marking tactical plan. It was a bit of a shock to the system, especially to the team’s veterans, but it was also viewed as a necessity.
“A lot of the message has been about bringing the best out of yourself, and also the unity,” team captain Chris Wondolowski said prior to leaving for Mexico. “Having a locker room mentality that there will be no cliques and everyone coming together and having that brotherhood is the basic message.”
The Quakes returned from Mexico more unified than before, which is an important change from 2018. Too often last season, players would look after themselves first and the welfare of the team second. It wasn’t a fractious locker room, but there never seemed to be a full investment by some players to make teamwork their priority.
“Everyone has their role,” Wondolowski continued. “You have to play your role to the best of your ability and get the most out of it. If you happen to struggle, or you come up short, your brother next to you will be there to pick you up and help bring you to that next level.”
After a layover in Reno, where the Quakes played their USL Championship affiliate and lost, 3-0, the squad finally made it back to San Jose, equally exhausted and excited. The result against Reno 1868 FC was not ignored; rather, it was a rallying point. Almeyda’s influence on the squad would come not just in tactics, but also in mentally preparing the players for the swings of a 34-game regular season. He had the guys back on the training field outside Avaya Stadium within a day, and they went about working on improving team cohesiveness.
Last Saturday, against host LAFC, the Earthquakes rebounded in a big way. Gone were the doubts and tired legs of the weekend before, and Almeyda’s men dominated on their home field, 3-0. And while it wasn’t a win that counts for anything in the standings, it was a psychological boost to get such a result against one of last season’s MLS Cup playoffs teams.
“Last weekend, we faced Reno after traveling seven to eight hours from Cancun,” Almeyda told reporters in LA. “We were tired when we arrived, and the game went bad for us. I didn’t like what I saw there. This week, we worked on correcting our mistakes, and getting confidence back into the players.”
Too often in 2018, the Quakes would capitulate too easily in games, especially when something did not go their way. The mental fortitude was lacking, and complacency would creep in, prolonging the problem and preventing the ability of the squad to bounce back. Almeyda has been tasked from Day One to reverse that way of thinking, and the seeds he sowed are starting to sprout.
“The feeling was good, the attitude has been very well among everyone,” midfielder Anibal Godoy said following the win against LAFC. “That was one of the main focuses, developing that mentality of wanting to change the situation we had last year. I think we’ve done that beyond the result.”
Godoy, it is fair to say, had an uneven 2018. Sure, he was there in Russia, playing for Panama in the FIFA World Cup, but his performances in San Jose were mixed. Other veterans also suffered too many ups and downs throughout the season, and it all summed up to long stretches of ineffectiveness on the field.
With less than two weeks to go until the regular season opener against the Montreal Impact, the attitude is improved within the team. Certainly, the preseason always brings about renewed optimism, and in San Jose that means forgetting the past. But Almeyda himself cannot provide a quick fix, even if the fortunes of the team need to change quickly.
“They had a difficult season after winning four matches throughout the year,” Almeyda said on Saturday. “From their perspective, that’s tough for them. But we are excited. We have a lot of energy and ambition to help the guys and to go far together, and to once again form San Jose into an important team.”
For Wondolowski, who scored a goal and added an assist against LAFC, this could be his last season in MLS, and he wants nothing more than to see San Jose finish on a high note. He proclaimed his goal at the start of preseason was to win trophies this year, but he also acknowledged he couldn’t do it alone. However, the captain was encouraged by what he saw when he looked around the locker room, and he again came back to the side of positivity.
“I do believe that everyone is on the same page, and it hasn’t always been like that in years past,” Wondolowski said. “Guys have bought in, and there is optimism.”