SAN JOSE, Calif. — This week has been all about Chris Wondowloski, the new MLS goal-scoring king, but there’s more to unpack from an important week for the San Jose Earthquakes, especially with a pivotal month on the calendar ahead.
News regarding the upcoming Concacaf Gold Cup will have ramifications on head coach Matias Almeyda’s choices for the Quakes starting lineup throughout June, and that’s even before a tough two-game stretch away from Avaya Stadium when they play across the continent.
The Earthquakes are carrying a lot of momentum going into the weekend, when they’ll face Toronto FC, likely with Wondolowski leading the offense once again, before capping off the road trip with in the nation’s capital against Wayne Rooney and DC United. San Jose sits only two points out of a playoff position in the Western Conference.
Home is where the points are
The Earthquakes have yet to secure a win on the road this season — only three other teams in MLS, Sporting Kansas City, the Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution, share that ignominious distinction — but they’ve been blisteringly hot at home in recent weeks.
Following last Saturday’s epic 4-1 win against the Fire, the Quakes have won four straight games at Avaya Stadium, the first time that’s happened since the building opened in 2015. San Jose does get credit for winning four consecutive home games back in 2017, but that included a Cali Clasico win at Stanford Stadium. This current streak is all about Avaya Castle.
“It’s another win at home, and we opposed ourselves on the opponent,” midfielder Tommy Thompson said, “and that’s starting to show, and teams are starting to see what we can do. I’m excited for the future here because we have something special in the locker room and it’s starting to show on the field.”
The influence Almeyda has had on the squad is a big factor in the team’s turnaround from last year’s epic failures, especially given the relatively modest roster turnover San Jose experienced in the offseason. Still, the current Earthquakes have yet to find their collective footing on the road, and the two-game stretch coming up will test their growing confidence.
“We found a path, and on that we have to keep going,” Almeyda said following the Fire result. “We’re very close to finding our system of play of which it will help us know how we should step on the field for every game. The game today, it was the same team on the field beside [Daniel] Vega and Cristian Espinoza that played last season. It’s the same players. We’re seeing a huge growth with them, either collectively and individually, and we have to keep going. I think little by little they are convincing themselves that they can and when I chose this place, I was convinced that they can do it, the idea was to try to convince them and as of now they are convincing themselves.”
The Quakes have not been a good road team in many seasons, collecting only two wins away from Avaya Stadium all of last year. During their last four-game home winning streak, accomplished in a seven-game stretch from June 24 to August 5, 2017, the Earthquakes lost all three away games in that span. Though the team plays three home games following the two-game set at Toronto and DC, San Jose needs all the points it can get on this road trip.
“Yeah, I love that this team has character,” midfielder Shea Salinas said. “We’re able to persevere and overcome adversity. We’ve shown that a lot this year. We’re going to have more difficult moments to come this year, and I think we’re going to continue to build off that. We’re confident at home, we’re confident on the road, so it’s really fun right now.”
Despite the games against TFC and DC United falling a week apart on the calendar, the Earthquakes made the decision to stay on the East Coast for the entirety of the road trip. Almeyda has advocated for these longer trips since arriving in San Jose — a lengthy preseason training camp and a two-game set in Seattle and Texas without a layover in the Bay Area are two such examples — seeing the value of keeping his players and the coaching staff in close quarters. It’s been a popular strategy thus far, allowing everyone to look past previous challenges and embrace those still to come.
“Everyone’s having fun,” Thompson said. “Everyone’s enjoying the game and Matias has done an amazing job of encouraging an environment of positivity and to bring each other up regardless of whether or not you are playing. Everyone has bought into that, and when we lost the first four games of the season, nobody doubted what was coming, and that’s why I said what I said after the LAFC game because I knew this was going to happen. We are going to continue to work as hard as ever, and I am very excited for the rest of the season.”
Gold Cup call-ups
The Earthquakes current momentum will first be tested on their two-game trip back East, but the real challenge comes in the weeks that follow, when three important starters likely will miss most of June, and perhaps the early part of July, on international duty during the Concacaf Gold Cup.
Anibal Godoy and Harold Cummings, the Quakes’ two Panamaniacs, are all but certain to be on their nation’s final 23-man roster for the biennial tournament. Nick Lima, who was named this week to the U.S. men’s national team 40-man provisional roster, will learn his fate no later than June 5, when final rosters are due to the confederation. Losing all three would surely put a dent in the Earthquakes’ chase to reach the top seven in the Western Conference.
But Almeyda is acutely aware of the potential disruptions that might occur, and he’s been preparing for such an event with his player selection throughout the season. Thompson, who has played at right back of late, the position Lima owned for the last two seasons, is well established in the starting eleven at fullback. Peruvian winger Marcos Lopez, who began the 2019 season at left back, where Lima has played in recent games, could get the nod to regain his starting role.
Replacing the Panamanians will be more difficult, with two players who began the season in the first eleven, Judson and Guram Kashia, available as substitutes. Both opening-day starters lost their places after the Earthquakes opened the campaign with four straight losses, but they are likely to regain their starting roles during Godoy and Cummings’ Gold Cup absence.
Thompson, for one, suggests the Earthquakes will be able to weather the storm, firmly believing that Almeyda has the team set up to succeed regardless of who’s available or missing. It’s not just the gameday preparation, either; it’s a philosophy for the game that weds preparation with passion, and the players are bought in.
“It was a new system, so it took some time to adapt, but we spent a lot of time on it,” Thompson said. “We watched a lot of video and Matias has done a great job of communicating what each player needs to do, and it’s starting to come together. You can see it on the field. Everyone’s enjoying it, everyone’s having fun, and we’re doing things that we haven’t done in years.”
Wondolowski’s epic game of goals against the Fire may not have happened if not for an injury to starting forward Danny Hoesen, but the 36-year-old captain and beating heart of the organization was ready to step onto the field. It’s never easy to adjust to being benched, but Almeyda has made it a mission to make sure every player on the team knows his role and stays motivated for his opportunity.
“I think that this coaching staff and this locker room have reignited that passion and a love for the game and I’m just enjoying it out there,” Wondolowski said. “I’m going out there not to score goals, I’m going out there because it’s fun. Every practice I enjoy, it’s tough, it’s hard.”
Not having Godoy, Cummings and possibly Lima available for such an important stretch of games will be an issue, but with Almeyda’s guiding hand, the Quakes hope the absences will only serve as a distraction, as other players step up and take advantage of the opportunity. If the current squad can collect points in Toronto and DC in the next two weeks, that prospect looks even more promising.