SAN JOSE, Calif. — After tying their last two games, the San Jose Earthquakes are at a crossroads when it comes to results. On one hand, they are not losing, which was their fate in the four previous games. But on the other hand, their failure to win has seen them drop to the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
The Quakes are certainly searching for some level of consistency — their 2-9-5 record marks the worst start to a season in the MLS era — and even earning a point per game would be a marked improvement, but everyone within the organization expects more.
For head coach Mikael Stahre, the nightmare start to his time in MLS is something the Swedish manager is looking to put behind him. Last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake, a team that had won six straight at Rio Tinto Stadum prior to the Earthquakes’ visit, was another step in the right direction in his assessment, and he’s using a full week of training at the team’s training facility just outside Avaya Stadium to build on those advances.
“We have to look at the entire game against Salt Lake and find the positives, even the small things,” Stahre told Pro Soccer USA. “Now we have played two games in a row where we have broken that negative record of lots of defeats. It is always hard to play on the road in MLS, and they are a very good home team. It was a decent performance, for sure.”
During the past few games, Stahre has adjusted the team’s formation to resemble a more familiar 4-4-2. In games against Los Angeles FC and the New England Revolution, he used a diamond formation in the midfield, pushing Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili to the point and keeping Florian Jungwirth as his true defensive midfielder. For the contest against RSL, the midfield line was often collapsed more into a flat four, as the Quakes looked to defend more effectively on the road.
“It was a little bit of everything,” Stahre said. “When you play at home against LAFC and New England, we wanted to use a little bit more of an offensive approach, a direct approach, and more use of the longer ball. But in the last game, we couldn’t press as high or use as direct an approach because of their side, so we took the decision to change the shape a little bit. Vako was still in a higher position, for sure, but he did drop a little bit more into the normal 4-4-2 shape in that game.”
The switch to the 4-4-2, regardless of whether Vako plays in an advanced position or not, has proved more effective for the Earthquakes attacking duo of Danny Hoesen and Chris Wondolowski, who together have scored six goals in the last four games. Hoesen now has 10 goals on the season, including two against the Revs, and is tied for third best in MLS.
“I must say that, you know, we can still expect more,” Stahre said, “but if you look at Danny Hoesen, who has scored 10 goals and Wondo with four goals, they are getting their chances. I think we can expect more goals from both, and we can expect more points from Vako. He is doing better and better in his position behind the two strikers.”
Vako scored the opening goal against LAFC, and he has been a critical part of the Earthquakes buildup on offense. The more direct style of play that Stahre has instituted of late has also been energizing to Wondolowski, who before had struggled to find his scoring touch in a system that demanded a more methodical possession based style. The coach is pleased to see his captain respond in such a positive way to the formation change.
“Chris is a guy that is leading by action,” Stahre said. “He is a warrior. He is always the first in the line, and his effort is absolutely brilliant. Especially now, when we’ve changed our style to be a little more direct, he is playing higher up, which means that he can also express himself better on the field. It’s hard to be a leader if you are struggling, then you have to deal with the team and you have to deal with yourself. And now when he is doing better again, and he is playing in his position higher up, he can press and chase and set the tone as the leader.”
The 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake was also important in that it marked the first time this month the Quakes conceded fewer than two goals. Stahre is well aware that his team has yet to record a shutout this season, but he was encouraged by the effort of the defense to keep RSL from breaking open a tight game. Their next opponent, the LA Galaxy, have an even more potent offense, and Stahre knows his back line will be tested this Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
Injuries have also hampered the coach’s ability to field a more consistent defense, and the team added central midfielder Kevin Partida on a season-long loan from USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC to help at left back. Stahre will have some help for this weekend, as both Shea Salinas and Joel Qwiberg return to the squad, but the coach would not say who would get the start against the Galaxy.
“We will see,” Stahre said. “Shea will be available for selection, and from my perspective, Joel had a little bit of a problem after the Portland game, but he is now available too.”
Salinas was the hero of last year’s California Clasico at Stanford, scoring in dramatic fashion to give the Quakes a thrilling 2-1 victory in front of over 50,000 fans. The 11-year MLS veteran may get his chance to repeat his magical moment if Stahre inserts him back in the starting eleven. Otherwise, it will likely be Partida making the start in front of the biggest crowd he has ever played for.
The Quakes are not expected to have Anibal Godoy and Harold Cummings back for the match against the Galaxy. Although Panama has been eliminated from the World Cup, the players will need time to travel from Russia and recover from the experience. Both are expected to be available for San Jose’s following game, at the Portland Timbers on July 7.