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After collapse in New York, San Jose Earthquakes search for complete game performance

Cristian Espinoza scored early for the San Jose Earthquakes, but the New York Red Bulls stormed back to win 4-1 at Red Bull Arena. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

As the teams retreated to the locker room at halftime, it looked like the San Jose Earthquakes, dominant for 45 minutes and holding a one goal lead, might earn their first ever regular-season win at Red Bull Arena. Instead, they collapsed and New York scored four times in the second half en route to a 4-1 victory in its home season opener.

In the first game of the season, the Earthquakes squandered a similar 1-0 advantage and lost to the Montreal Impact 2-1. Last week, they played Minnesota United to a halftime stalemate before conceding three goals after the break. A cross-country road trip to New York was never going to be easy, not against the defending Supporters’ Shield winners, but the early lead had some believing the Quakes would break their eight-game regular season skid in Harrison.

It was not meant to be, and now San Jose now limps home for the international break with an 0-3 record and a -7 goal differential. The team gets a weekend off from MLS play to regroup, playing Monterrey in a friendly on Saturday, before taking on LAFC in a nationally televised game on March 30.

Head coach Matias Almeyda, who has transformed the style of play for San Jose with his aggressive, man-marking system, is seeing early dividends out of the team for his efforts, but not over a full 90 minutes per game. It is worrisome, but also a result of players trying to incorporate a lot of new ideas in a short period of time.

“We had two games in one,” Almeyda told reporters after the game. “The first half was excellent, and the second half was bad against an unforgiving team. They’ve been working together for five years now and have an established style of play. We are looking to win, establish our playing style and build mentality. It’s going to take a while.”

Cristian Espinoza had staked the Quakes to an early lead, a feature of the game plan the team had worked on all week in training, but the visitors couldn’t find a second goal to put the Red Bulls back on their heels. It kept the home side in it, and following a stern talk from head coach Chris Armas at halftime, New York roared to life in the second half.

“We’re missing that killer instinct,” captain Chris Wondolowski said from Red Bull Arena. “I think if you’re able to get a second one, a third one, it changes the game.”

In the lead-up to the game, midfielder Anibal Godoy was confident the Earthquakes could score in the first 15 minutes and pile on from there. The team’s energy from the opening whistle seemed high enough to do just that, but a bad miss from Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili and a lack of quality service to Wondolowski prevented the breakthrough the team needed. It was a tantalizing half of soccer, a sign that San Jose, can be competitive with the best in MLS, but it didn’t last.

“I have confidence in our team,” Almeyda said. “It’s not easy to change the style of play after the team is accustomed to a different one. We want to fight for the ball, mark zones and be the protagonists in each game. In the first half, we were able to do that. If we are able to maintain that for longer, the team will be able to get out of the hole that we are in.”

The physical demands of Almeyda’s system are part of the issue, but so is the qualities of the players and how that translates to better possession and fewer turnovers. The Earthquakes featured two changes to their starting eleven against the Red Bulls, bringing in Tommy Thompson at right back and shifting Nick Lima to left back.

Thompson in particular is very skilled on the ball, and his interplay with Espinoza was a big part of the team’s successful first half. By the second half, perhaps in part due to fatigue, but likely more to do with the Red Bulls shift in approach, the pair were not as effective. For Thompson, it was his first full game on the field since he played the full 90 against New York at Avaya Stadium last October. He, like most of his teammates, looked exhausted at the final whistle.

“First half is how we want to play and need to play and play for 90 minutes,” Wondolowski said. “You can’t only play for 45 minutes. That’s not enough.”

Still, patience will be required of everyone in San Jose, from players building up their stamina and understanding of their new assignments, to Almeyda and his coaching staff in determining the right combination of tactics and personnel, before the Earthquakes can celebrate their first win of the season. The trip to New York will provide a new learning experience, one the team needs to build on in the weeks ahead.

“It’s a process and there’s things we have to go back and look on,” Lima said following the game. “We are all just working as hard as we can and that’s what we have to continue to do day in and day out.”

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