SAN JOSE, Calif. — For the second straight preseason, the San Jose Earthquakes will jet to Cancun, Mexico for two weeks of fun in the sun on the sandy shores of the Caribbean.
Well, if you consider two-a-day workouts and intensive fitness regimens fun, that is.
The choice of such an exotic locale was a bit of a shock for players last January, especially with new head coach Matias Almeyda in charge, a man not known to take it easy in his preparations.
A beach-side resort seemed a better destination to soak in some sun than get serious about soccer. But the wake-up call came literally hours after arriving on the Yucatan Peninsula, with many veterans not ready for the grueling workouts that came next.
There won’t be any surprises this year.
“I’d say it’s exciting knowing what we’re going to do,” midfielder Shea Salinas shared. “Last year we were saying, ‘Surely, tomorrow we’ll be off, and tomorrow will be easier,’ but it never was. I think we had like 15 straight days of two-a-days. But now we know what to expect. It’s hard, but afterwards, it’s fun to work that hard.”
Salinas, who is starting his 13th season in MLS, was the Earthquakes first MLS SuperDraft pick back in 2008. A self-described good runner and okay soccer player, Salinas is one of the fittest members of the team. In last week’s beep test, the 33-year-old finished third behind youngsters Tommy Thompson and Paul Marie. He knew he had to come into this preseason camp in great shape, and he’s glad to see his teammates are too.
“I think it’s just expected,” Salinas said. “We know what’s in Cancun, and so you want to be more prepared, and you want to be less sore when you are there. The beep test numbers, it was crazy. Everyone was way higher than last year, so it’s really positive. And our strength tests, everyone’s really strong.”
The most veteran player on the squad is captain and MLS goal-scoring leader Chris Wondolowski, who is preparing to embark on his last season as a professional. Like Salinas, Wondolowski keeps himself in great shape, and as a former competitive runner — he was a middle distance specialist in high school — tough training sessions are nothing new. Almeyda, in just a few days in charge, put that to the test.
“Yeah, definitely, it was definitely the hardest preseason I had,” Wondolowski remembered, “But this year everyone came in ready. Everyone knows what to expect, everyone knows it’s going to be grueling. No one wants to be doing extra fitness or trying to catch up.”
A year ago, defender Nick Lima was enjoying a different experience — training with the U.S. men’s national team in its traditional January camp — but he heard plenty from his teammates about the Cancun trip. And while the intensity of the workouts was not the thing he missed most, Lima realized that the time spent together under such circumstances was a bonding experience he knows is crucial to the team’s success.
“Raising the level, continuing to do that every training, every camp, in Cancun with the games, and continuing to build a culture with the guys is extremely important,” Lima said. “This is when we come together when we are training, doing fitness tests, whatever it may be in the weight room. It’s a lot of time spent with the guys and it’s very valuable when it comes to do-or-die time at the end of the year.”
Lima, the Earthquakes Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, when he started all 34 games, saw his minutes cut almost in half in Almeyda’s first year in charge. Some of that was due to other players stepping up, most notably Thompson as the team’s regular right back, but another factor was missing out on a significant part of the preseason.
Jackson Yueill, a mainstay in the Quakes starting lineup in 2019, is part of the USMNT camp this year, but the midfielder already has a year under his belt learning Almeyda’s playing system and is unlikely to face the same challenge as Lima. That doesn’t mean his starting spot is guaranteed, a fact everyone on the roster knows is true for himself, even a former league MVP.
“We have a very deep roster again, and it’s shown that everyone is competitive for every spot,” Wondolowski said. “No one wants to lose out on a spot because they’re not quite fit, even for a day or two, so everyone came in ready, everyone is ready to go, and I think it will be a good tool that the coaching staff will be able to use in Cancun to get us ready. I think last year was more getting us all on the same page and now it’s more fine tuning of how great we can be.”
A six-game losing streak to close out the 2019 season saw the Quakes narrowly miss out on qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs, and no one, from the coaching staff to the players, wants to experience such a slump again.
Almeyda learned a lot about MLS and the unique challenges the league’s structure and policies puts on players — he’s a strong advocate for better traveling conditions, including charter flights — so for 2020, he’s got a whole new plan to have his team prepared.
“Last preseason in Cancun, we had an 80% preseason compared to what we had programmed with drills and what we are looking for when it comes to implementation of what we look for with our system of play,” Almeyda said. “We didn’t know each other, but in this preseason when they know our methodology of working, we know how the players think, how they react, what we want and how we want to train each day.”
The familiarity Almeyda has for his players, a group that is almost entirely intact from last season, and the reciprocated understanding the players have for what is expected of them are expected to, together, give the Earthquakes an advantage heading into their season opener on February 29 against Toronto FC and throughout the 2020 campaign.
“Everyone is excited,” Lima said. “It’s a good atmosphere right now. A very good culture was built last year, and we get to build on top of it and keep going. And that is exciting.”
The Earthquakes arrived in Cancun on Jan. 26 and will arrive back in San Jose on Feb. 10. While in Mexico, the Quakes have two scrimmages scheduled, one against the Columbus Crew and another against a local side. Upon their return to the Bay Area, the Earthquakes will host closed door friendlies against USL Championship sides Reno 1868 FC and Sacramento Republic FC on February 18 and 21, respectively.