SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes‘ often magical, often frustrating regular season came down to one road game against the Portland Timbers, with a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs on the line. But in a pattern similar to their previous five games, all losses, the Quakes held strong for the first half before fading after intermission and dropping a 3-1 decision to the reigning Western Conference champions.
The Earthquakes, who went 2-9-0 over their last 11 games and dropped from third place to eighth place in the conference, finished the 2019 regular season with a 13-16-5 record. It was a huge improvement over their woeful 4-21-9 season last year, the worst in franchise history, but the dramatic turnaround came up one result short. And now, with the offseason upon them, the Quakes have plenty of questions to answer in the quest to make the playoffs in 2020.
Will Almeyda be back?
San Jose turned heads last fall when it announced Matias Almeyda as head coach in 2019. The former Argentine international, known for his fiery passion on the field during his playing career, had parlayed that energy and enthusiasm into a successful coaching career. His last stop, at legendary Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara, culminated with a Concacaf Champions League title, and so his move to MLS was received with great surprise and great anticipation.
Almeyda quickly instilled his brand of soccer on a roster nearly identical to that which earned the MLS Wooden Spoon the season before. He shed the losers attitude and challenged players to step up their games. From Tommy Thompson, the franchise’s first Homegrown Player who struggled for consistency to start his career, to Chris Wondolowski, the eternal captain that had seriously contemplated retirement following the team’s demoralizing 2018 campaign, everyone in Black and Blue responded to Almeyda’s call to action and committed to reversing the team’s fortunes.
The head coach, along with his assistants, was challenged by the task at hand, but he welcomed every twist and turn in his first MLS season. Almeyda, due to his stature in world football, also had to deal with the distractions of rumors placing him at all levels of clubs elsewhere. Most recently, he’s the media’s top target to take over at CF Monterrey in Liga MX. He has yet to firmly address said rumor, but Almeyda does seem to be looking ahead to building on a promising first season in San Jose, something his team’s captain appreciates.
“I think that it’s always disappointing not making the playoffs,” Wondolowski said following the loss to the Timbers. “It’s always your final goal and something that you want, but at the same time I felt that we built a foundation where we’re not bailing out water anymore. We finally have a secure foundation, know what to do, know our identity and can really build on that and go forward.”
Almeyda signed a four-year contract with the Earthquakes, but there are reports he could be pried away via a buyout clause by some select club and national team programs. Monterrey is not on that list, though it is unlikely the organization would get in the way of the Argentine moving to Mexico if that was his first choice. Signs point to Almeyda continuing his role with the Quakes next season, especially given the prospects of taking San Jose another step forward following its development in the 2019 season.
“I really enjoyed it,” Almeyda said from Portland. “I like the different propositions by the coaching staff. This league is growing fast and it’s filled with great players. It taught me a valuable lesson about life and sports, and I feel that I got a year back in my life.”
What about Wondo?
Of similar concern among Earthquakes fans is the future of Wondolowski. Following a season in which he scored 15 goals and extended his all-time career MLS record to 159 overall, the 36-year-old forward is out of contract. A year ago, he graciously accepted the team’s offer to exercise the option on the last year of his Designated Player contract, but so far this fall, there’s been no news of what’s in store for the Quakes captain in 2020. The team’s season-ending loss in Portland could be Wondo’s last as an Earthquake, but that scenario seems unlikely.
“This is a great group of guys,” Wondolowski said. “I enjoy going in there every day. I enjoy practice. I do need to reflect on this year and then decide my future; talk with the family, talk with the wife and decide where to go from here. At the same time, I had an absolute blast, so I wouldn’t mind it.”
Wondolowski finished the season tied for fifth in the league for goals scored and was fourth for game-winning goals. He was San Jose players’ choice for Player of Year, and if such an accolade could be handed out by the Avaya Stadium faithful, he would count that award too. It’s not a done deal that Wondolowski will be back in Black and Blue for the 2020 season, but the influence Almeyda had on the forward’s career revival is without question.
“I can’t thank Matias and his staff enough for reigniting the love and passion for this game for me,” Wondolowski added. “Last year took a lot out of me both mentally and physically. I was pretty sure that this was going to be the last one coming into the season. That being said, I had a lot of fun. I was thinking it was going to be, ‘Oh this is a job. I’m done now,’ but I do love it. Like I said, I’m going to talk to the family, talk to the wife, and see where to go from here.”
Who else headlines the comings and goings?
The roster will almost certainly undergo a shakeup in the coming months. After all, even with Almeyda in charge, the Quakes still came up short in their quest to make the playoffs. And in a league where more than half the teams qualify for the postseason, achieving that goal should be the minimum mark of success. Add in the Earthquakes’ late season collapse, and it’s clear there are improvements to make.
“The team had a great season from my point of view, and we got to this point,” Almeyda said. “We need to be objective, and if you only won two of the last 11 matches, it’s because something was missing.”
Cristian Espinoza, the team’s offensive MVP this season, was on loan from Spanish side Villarreal. Whether or not the Quakes can bring the midfielder back to San Jose in 2020 must be a priority for Almeyda and general manager Jesse Fioranelli. Espinoza’s 13 assists in 2019 was the most for the Earthquakes since Marvin Chavez reached the same mark back in 2012. So much of the team’s offense worked through Espinoza on the right wing, and even when it seemed opponents had him figured out, he still delivered.
The Earthquakes were one of the stingiest teams this season in giving minutes to players lower down the depth chart. Once Almeyda had the guys he wanted in the starting XI and on the bench, very few other players saw the field. This focus on such a core group of players possibly backfired in terms of the team’s energy level down the stretch, so Almeyda will need to bolster the roster to provide more depth. He and Fioranelli brought in attackers Carlos Fierro and Andres Rios in the summer transfer window, but neither player, despite earning lofty salaries according to the MLS Players Association, had much of an impact on the field. The technical staff will stay busy this offseason finding those difference-makers.
And when it comes to trimming those players who weren’t big contributors in 2019, the decisions will be even harder. The Earthquakes will announce who is staying and who is leaving sometime in November, ahead of the Expansion Draft for Nashville and Inter Miami. San Jose retained a large percentage of its squad following the 2018 season, but it is not likely to do the same this year.
Are there more questions? To be sure, especially for a team that will look back at 2019 with mixed feelings. The conversations are certainly already happening, and the answers to those questions will soon come to light.