SAN JOSE, Calif. — By the midpoint of the season, with only two wins to their name, the San Jose Earthquakes were a broken team. They weren’t yet mathematically eliminated from MLS playoff consideration, but the reality was that the team needed to regroup and begin looking past 2018.
Head coach Mikael Stahre, a popular figure to blame for the Quakes’ poor performances, seized on the opportunity to shake up his lineup, moving both Chris Wondolowski and Florian Jungwirth to the bench, and changing the core of his formation. The Earthquakes responded with their first clean sheet of the season two weeks ago against Real Salt Lake and their first win in nearly three months against conference leaders FC Dallas.
The recent run of form has been sparked in part by Stahre’s choice to give Luis Felipe Fernandes his first MLS start, three games ago against the Seattle Sounders. The Quakes lost that game 1-0, but Luis Felipe, stationed as a central midfielder, was the best player on the field that night. He went on to shine as a starter in subsequent games and is now the coach’s go-to selection moving forward.
“It is quite obvious that he played really well in these games,” Stahre told Pro Soccer USA. “First of all, he is a great soccer player, and then he is a really humble guy. He shows good positioning, and also he wins duels centrally and can dictate the game. For me, he is a really balanced player, good on defense and good in possession. We are really happy with him.”
Luis Felipe, 22, signed with the Quakes last December after a successful season with San Jose’s USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC. Prior to that, he played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL, where he made 31 appearances and notched two assists. Born in New York, but raised primarily in Brazil, he spent nearly eight years with Brazilian Serie A side Cruzeiro as part of their academy before returning to the U.S.
The soft-spoken midfielder with the curious uniform number of 96 has always been patient in waiting for his chances to play. His performances as a teenager with Cruzeiro’s youth team caught the eye of Tab Ramos, who invited Luis Felipe to play with the U.S. Under-20 program back in 2014, paving the way for his domestic return and professional debut two years later. When he signed with the Quakes ahead of this season, he knew it would be no different: he would have to earn his place in the lineup.
“Yeah, of course, as a player you always want to play, but it’s hard because things were not going well for us,” Luis Felipe told Pro Soccer USA. “I waited patiently for my chance and I was working hard at training every day, and when the chance came, I thought I played pretty well.”
His MLS debut did not end with a victory, but his eye-opening performance against the Sounders proved to be the highlight of the evening, and Luis Felipe enjoyed the reactions he received from his teammates and fans alike.
“Yeah, it was very good,” he said. “I felt confident in the game, and after the game I had a lot of messages from the fans which felt really good. It was definitely a special moment for me.”
It was a moment that Stahre singled out in his post game comments, as well as in the days after. The coach explained that Luis Felipe had done very well in training throughout the season, but he wanted to wait before giving him a start with the first team. Instead, the central midfielder was often loaned back to Reno to continue his development.
“The most important thing is the many games he’s played in Reno,” Stahre said, “so we know he has the capacity and can keep that standard throughout a whole game. Now he’s done it for us, and as a young player we will help him keep that up.”
For his part, Luis Felipe did not take the frequent back and forths from San Jose to Reno negatively. Rather, he relished the opportunity to reunite with head coach Ian Russell, a long-time servant in the Quakes organization, and continue his progress as a pro.
“He was always talking to me,” Luis Felipe said. “He was always telling me where to be on the field, getting good touches, good passes. Everything he learned here in San Jose during his career he shared with me, and that has helped a lot.”
The last two games, the MLS newcomer has been paired with Anibal Godoy in the center of the formation, and the two midfielders have quickly developed a good chemistry. Stahre would only smile when asked about the budding partnership, letting the players’ actions speak for themselves, but the duo have given the Quakes stability in a place on the field where opponents had feasted on them earlier this season.
In games and in training, Luis Felipe credits Godoy with making his transition to starter go that much more smoothly, and he welcomes the opportunity to learn more from the World Cup veteran as the two continue to man the center of the park for San Jose.
“It’s been very good,” he said. “I feel confident. He’s a very experienced guy, and he has been playing for a while. He is always talking to me, making me play better, so it’s good to have him by my side on the field.”
In his three games as a starter, Luis Felipe has played every minute, but he has yet to register an assist or goal. Not to worry, he explained, as he knows his moment to get on the scoresheet will come soon enough. His priority so far has been to lock down the midfield and ensure the Quakes defense is covered. Once the dirty work is completed, then he’ll venture forward in search of a goal.
“It’s been a good start, and I’ve been feeling confident,” he said “Sometime I get into the box, and I have that in me, so hopefully I can get a goal soon.”
The team would certainly welcome such an outcome, but for now, having the 22 year old maintain a sense of order in the midfield would prove enough. And with a chance this weekend to secure their second straight win, at the Colorado Rapids, everyone is hoping Luis Felipe can continue to show he belongs in the starting lineup.
“We’re feeling good,” he said. “I think we can go strong there, and I hope we can get a good result.”
In a season that has had way more lows than highs, the emergence of Luis Felipe is a welcome sight indeed.
When: August 11, 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City.
Broadcast: NBC Sports California Plus, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: ESPN+
Earthquakes injury report: Out: Kevin Partida (knee)