SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes missed out on the 2019 Major League Soccer playoffs by the slimmest margin.
A win on Decision Day would have sent the Quakes into the postseason and capped off a brilliant debut season for head coach Matias Almeyda.
Instead, a 3-1 loss to the Portland Timbers, which capped off a six-game losing streak to end the campaign, consigned San Jose to another early offseason start.
Rather than blowing up the roster and starting from scratch, Almeyda and general manager Jesse Fioranelli decided to double-down on their current squad, re-signing key contributors Chris Wondolowski and Florian Jungwirth and securing the signatures of influential loanees Cristian Espinoza and Judson.
It might be seen as a gamble not to bring in new big-name players, especially as the rest of the league has made such splashy signings, but the coach sees the advantages in working together with the same group of guys and not chasing help from afar.
“Surely the biggest reinforcement that we have is that we have a year together now,” Almeyda said. “From that point, we trust that our team will be competitive.”
After a dismal 2018 season, the Quakes rebounded in a big way last year, the first under Almeyda, more than doubling their points total (21 to 44) and tripling their wins (4 to 13).
Wondolowski, the team’s talisman, reached double digits in goals scored for a tenth straight season, and the team made significant progress in adopting the playing methodology brought aboard by Almeyda, the former Concacaf Coach of the Year.
“We are all on the same page,” Wondolowski said. “We know what to expect and what to do. Everyone knows what it takes to play for Matias for a full year and it’s not always easy, but when you do execute the game plan and execute the fitness regimen, it becomes easier and it becomes more fun, especially out there in the games.”
2020 will be the last season for the reigning MLS goal-scoring leader, and he’s relieved that it won’t be a whole new set of expectations to prepare for and adapt to. The familiarity of the game plan, and the teammates whom which he’ll play it, allow the Quakes captain to put all his focus on the only priority he has ahead of retirement.
“Win,” Wondolowski said. “It’s as easy as that. It’s on the docket. It’s something that before might have been a pipe dream as a goal out there, but this year it’s very tangible and something we all feel. We all know how close we were, but at the same time, we know we’re still a ways away. We need to make some strides to get there, and I think we have and will continue to be there.”
Wondolowski will not get any special treatment from Almeyda in his final season, nor is he expecting any, as everyone on the squad knows his spot in the starting lineup is not guaranteed. Shea Salinas, who is entering his 13th season as a professional, all in MLS, sees the advantages in keeping the same core of players from last year and isn’t worried that complacency will creep its way into the locker room.
“Last year we grew a ton as players, just getting to know one another,” Salinas said. “We became a true family, so the fact that we get to bring everyone back again this year is really exciting. It’s going to let us continue that momentum and it will help us a lot in our first few games.”
The Earthquakes, still learning Almeyda’s complex style of play and integrating new players into the lineup, lost their first four games of 2019, each by a progressively larger margin.
The learning curve associated with the new system, as well as the lack of confidence fostered by the previous campaign’s failures, took time to overcome. A successful summer saw San Jose nearly reach the top of the Western Conference, but that six-game season-ending losing streak was fatal to their postseason hopes. The team looked fatigued on the field by year’s end, but the bonds among players had grown stronger than ever.
“We have a lot to build off of from last year,” Salinas said, “It’s important that we kept the same guys, especially with Matias’s system. It takes a lot of trust. It takes time to build chemistry, and we’re glad to have that, so we’re excited to build off of that.”
For Nick Lima, 2019 was a roller-coaster year, starting with January camp with the United States men’s national team that culminated with his first international appearance and Man-of-the-Match performance in a 3-0 win against Panama.
That delayed his integration into Almeyda’s squad during the Quakes crucial preseason. Lima was the team’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, but under the new coach, he was fighting for whatever playing time he could earn.
The transition was rocky at the start, especially when Tommy Thompson usurped his spot as the starting right back, but soon Lima recognized that a willingness to contribute to the team in any way possible was the key to success in Almeyda’s demanding system. It was a tough, but ultimately rewarding, lesson for the third-year pro.
“You’ve seen what Matias can do and what we’re capable of doing in such a short amount of time,” Lima said. “There’s a lot of positives, and there are more to come, and I am excited to continue that. … It’s a growing environment, we as team fit together, and I believe we will continue that this year in order to reach our goals.”
And, so, continuity will be the theme for the Earthquakes heading into 2020. The team’s 2019 midsummer additions Andres Rios and Carlos Fierro have had time to catch up on what Almeyda expects of his players, and both are expected to compete from day one of preseason to make the starting lineup. Most importantly, the coach feels familiarity among the squad will serve to accelerate the team’s progress in 2020.
“For me, it was important to keep as much of the same squad as possible,” Almeyda said. “I am happy they all know how I think and what we expect from each and every one of them as well.”
And the players agree, welcoming the trust placed in them that collectively they can take the team a step further and reach the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since 2017. With Almeyda in charge, there is consensus the pieces are in place for a successful 2020 season.
“I’m 100% confident this is the team that can go forward,” Lima said. “People talk about new players, but I think every player in this locker room knows it’s a new situation, so you have a new mentality, a new desire to go out and get something done. We are building off of one coach for a whole season and into the next season. So that’s exciting. And it’s not just any coach, it’s Matias, and I have all the confidence in the world in this group.”