SAN JOSE, Calif. — The bittersweet specter of a FIFA international break has once again reared its head in Major League Soccer, and the San Jose Earthquakes are right in its sights.
A total of seven players were called into their respective national teams from the Quakes for games in the first two weeks of September, leaving the roster a bit threadbare in the middle of their chase to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs.
Nick Lima and Jackson Yueill were called up by Gregg Berhalter to represent the U.S. men’s national team in friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay. Both games will be a good test for a roster laden with younger players, 17 of which hail from MLS.
San Jose will also be represented on the international stage by Guram Kashia and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, who join Georgia for a tune-up match against South Korea and a European Championship 2020 qualifier versus Denmark. Defenders Harold Cummings and Marcos Lopez will represent Panama and Peru, respectively, and Gilbert Fuentes earned a place in the U.S. U-17 training camp.
The Earthquakes play Orlando City on Aug. 31 at Avaya Stadium, and all seven players will be available for that match before jetting off to join their national teams. The next game on the schedule, a critical midweek visit to Real Salt Lake on Sept. 11, is when the Quakes will be especially hurt by the players’ absences. The upcoming FIFA match window officially runs from Sept. 2-10, and so it is highly unlikely any of the called up players will be available to play in Utah one day later.
RSL is currently in second place in the Western Conference, two points ahead of San Jose, and only six points separate them from eighth place Portland Timbers, currently on the outside looking in, right below the playoff line. It is not a make-or-break game at Rio Tinto Stadium when it comes to the Earthquakes’ prospects of making the postseason, but it is very significant in that quest.
And so it was with a mix of joy and consternation that Quakes fans reacted on social media to the news of the call-ups this week. No one blames the players for their accomplishments, but everyone feels aggrieved at the effect the MLS schedule will hamper the team. USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter responded to that very complaint in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, with the former Columbus Crew coach saying, “That’s just the way it is.”
For Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda, who has made his displeasure at untimely international call-ups public earlier this season, the truncated roster will require a vastly different starting eleven against Real Salt Lake than the one that rolled to a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend, taking an MLS-record 43 shots in the process. The likely replacements in the lineup have all featured for the Quakes at times this season, so there is some roster depth for Almeyda to work with, but it doesn’t present the ideal eleven.
Vako can be replaced by either Andres Rios, who scored his first MLS goal in the win against the ‘Caps, or Carlos Fierro, another of the Quakes two summer transfer window signings. The Georgian international has been on a tear this summer, so the two newcomers will have big shoes to fill. Yueill’s absence will also be significant, though Almeyda does have World Cup veteran Anibal Godoy to take his place. Godoy, who was traded to Nashville SC earlier this month in a deal that will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020, is a lame-duck for the Quakes. He has quelled any issues about his commitment to finishing out his time in San Jose, but he has not been a factor for the team since suffering a leg injury earlier this season.
The defense is where the real damage will be done. Kashia and Cummings have both partnered numerous games at centerback with Florian Jungwirth and provided a solid contribution on the Quakes back line. Seldom used Francois Affolter looks to be next in line to combine with Jungwirth against Real Salt Lake. Lima and Lopez, often used by Almeyda in the same left back position, will be replaced by Shea Salinas, or perhaps Paul Marie. Salinas has seen plenty of time at left back over the last two seasons, but he is clearly more effective at left wing, and the Quakes will miss his runs into the attacking third he provides from that more advanced position.
The typical motto for international players is “For Club and Country,” but that conjunction will be replaced with a big “but” this FIFA window. The added challenge Almeyda faces in roster management is certainly not one he would choose, but it’s the one he has.