SAN JOSE, Calif. — Following two unsuccessful games at Avaya Stadium, the San Jose Earthquakes take to the road this weekend in search of their first points of the season. But they won’t have an easy go at it, not against the defending Supporters’ Shield winners, New York Red Bulls.
The Quakes face a Red Bulls team that was eliminated from the Concacaf Champions League earlier this week, losing 6-2 on aggregate to Santos Lagunas in the quarterfinal round. Consequently, they could be susceptible to a lull, though no one on San Jose is taking matters lightly, and the expectation is that New York will look to bounce back in a big way.
“I don’t think it will be an advantage,” midfielder Anibal Godoy said through a translator. “They are always a good team, and they have a ideology that’s been success for them for awhile. I am sure it hurts them to lose to Santos that way, but they are going to come back and play even harder against us. We know they are tough at home, so we are going to try to score early and stay focused.”
Godoy is one of six Earthquakes players called to international duty for games to be played next week — Harold Cummings, Marcos Lopez, Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, Guram Kashia, and Nick Lima are the others — and all six are expected to be in Matias Almeyda’s starting lineup against the Red Bulls. For Lima, the challenge will be especially acute given the contrast of his team’s slow but steady adoption of Almeyda’s system and New York’s established style of play.
“We know with them, how high-pressure they are and how hardworking they are,” Lima said. “They have a lot of good players on their team. With what we’ve done in our first two games, it is still a learning process.”
San Jose lost 2-1 to the Montreal Impact and 3-0 to Minnesota United to open the regular season, as the team is still learning the intricacies of Almeyda’s aggressive, man-marking defensive scheme. The five goals allowed have been deserved, but the players believe progress has been made in coming together as a team.
“Even though the results have not been there, it’s been good for us,” Godoy said. “Minnesota and Montreal beat us, but they didn’t outplay us. We know soccer is a results game, and if we keep believing in Matias and his message, the results will come. Matias will keep giving us the tools so that we can communicate better and work better together.”
“We have to move forward,” Lima added. “But we have to go over film, see our mistakes, swallow our pride, and take ownership. We are all making mistakes, myself included, and we have to be together and hear what Matias has to say, and believe in it. Once we stop believing, that’s when things can go really wrong, but I don’t think things have gone wrong, we just haven’t been our best, and I believe we can succeed in this system.”
Almeyda has selected the same starting eleven for both games this season, with Chris Wondolowski leading the attack and veteran goalkeeper Daniel Vega backing the defensive line. Last year’s leading scorer Danny Hoesen is a candidate to break into the lineup, perhaps at the expense of Wondolowski, though the Dutch striker might continue to play a role off the bench.
“We are looking and analyzing,” Almeyda said. “We’ve done a few practices using some possible changes, but I’ll have my final decisions made this Friday before the match.”
The Earthquakes will be underdogs on Saturday for the nationally televised match, which will also be streamed on Twitter, but their spirit is still strong. That was not always the case in 2018, when the team managed only four wins total and too easily folded under pressure. The hiring of Almeyda, who has assembled a talented group of assistant coaches, has brought hope to a side that needed a strong leader.
“For one, we believe in each other, and that’s what’s different there,” Lima said. “The belief in each other, to fight for each other, as well as having a proven, successful guy leading us in Matias. There’s no need to panic. If you panic after two games, you are never going to succeed. Teams go through two game loss streaks, especially with a new system. For everyone in this locker room, I would be alarmed if we were alarmed. So, we have a lot to learn, clearly, and obviously the best is yet to come.”
The Earthquakes feature a diverse group of MLS veterans and newcomers, representing countries in all hemispheres, and communication within the squad has been improving with every training session. Two games does not make a season, not with 32 remaining on the schedule, but everyone is ready to celebrate their first win of 2019.
“Everyone is going into this like they were from the start of the season,” Godoy said. “We want to turn this around and succeed. And once we get that first win, we will have the belief to keep growing as a team. Matias emphasizes the unity of the team a lot, and we plan to be a force to be reckoned with. The focus is game to game, and we can learn from the mistakes of last year and grow this year. We want to win, and we know it will happen soon.”
Almeyda knows his role as head coach goes beyond installing tactics: he has to instill confidence in a group of players that carry the baggage of too many lost results. He sounds as much like a healer as he does a coach when it comes to his approach to helping on that front.
“This team has been through a lot because of last year, only winning a few games,” Almeyda said. “The mental health in soccer and in life is fundamental and we are giving them all the tools to be relaxed, that they don’t get desperate, have patience. The positive results will come soon, and we hope they come as soon as possible.”
The MLS standings show an Earthquakes team at the bottom of the standings, but from a look around the locker room to the field during training, the players have bought into Almeyda’s message. And a win or draw on the road against the Red Bulls will be cause for celebration, certainly, though staying competitive is the team’s main goal.
“We see bigger gaps then we want, but we see them clearly,” Lima said. “Matias is an unbelievably smart coach and person, and we’re going to be able to go back to the drawing board. Maybe it takes ten games, maybe it takes half a season, whatever it takes, but I think there is a sense of belief and still excitement in this locker room from Matias all the way down to the players.”
When: March 16, 12:30 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, NJ.
Broadcast: Univision, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: Twitter
Earthquakes injury report: Out: Kevin Partida (knee surgery).