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San Jose Earthquakes stars Chris Wondolowski, Vako enjoy spoils of success after shaky starts

At the midway point of the MLS season, the Quakes’ two Designated Players are on fire

Valeri "Vako" Qazaishvili celebrates with forward Chris Wondolowski as the two San Jose Earthquakes Designated Players enjoy their recent run of success. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Matias Almeyda had to do something.

In his first four games as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes, his team lost all four, all in progressively demoralizing fashion. Los Angeles FC had just beat them 5-0, at Avaya Stadium, and the fans and media alike were wondering if this Quakes team was actually worse than last season’s historically bad team. Almeyda had to make some tough decisions.

The Argentine manager arrived in San Jose with an ambitious plan to completely reshape the organization, on and off the field. He didn’t believe the team was just about the stars in the sky, but one where every man played an equal and vital roll. He hurried the squad to Cancun for a preseason training camp that took them out of their comfort zones, striving to excise the complacency that plagued the players in 2018. He hit the reset button without hesitation.

Almeyda pushed for a new system of play, equal parts aggressive and intricate, and he had no patience for those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t adopt it. The players came around, believing in the coach and his message, recognizing the process to master Almeyda’s system would take time, and there would be setbacks along the way.

But four straight losses to open the season, punctuated with a -12 goal differential, was more than just a hiccup, and just a month into the season, the Earthquakes were viewed as a laughing stock. Almeyda wasn’t so much defiant in the wake of the criticism he was receiving, but he certainly seemed unfazed. Inside his office, along with his assistants, he plotted his next moves.

Shaking things up

Game five, at home against the reigning Western Conference champions Portland Timbers, was next on the schedule, and Almeyda shook up the starting lineup in dramatic fashion. This was his team and he was in charge. No one was untouchable.

Chris Wondolowski, the team’s captain, and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, the squad’s highest paid player — the two biggest stars in the sky in San Jose — were benched.

But Almeyda didn’t stop there. Guram Kashia and Judson, were replaced by Florian Jungwirth and Jackson Yueill, strengthening the spine of the formation. Shea Salinas, previously deputized as a defender, was unleashed as an attacker, and Danny Hoesen, last season’s leading goal scorer, took over at the point of the spear. The squad was transformed.

The once hapless Quakes rolled the Timbers, 3-0, and the players, on the field and on the bench, relished the victory. It was a just reward for months of preparation and anguish, and the mood was one of “we’re just getting started” in the locker room. Even Wondolowski, in the gameday 18 but didn’t play the first time that had happened in nearly a decade — was pumped up by the performance.

Almeyda continued to tweak his lineups over the next month, but kept Wondolowski and Vako on the bench, relegating both to a handful of substitute appearances. San Jose went on a 2-2-2 run, and the style of play demanded by Almyeda was clearing taking hold. The services of the two Earthquakes’ Designated Players, no longer starters, were seemingly superfluous to the team’s turnaround.

But Wondolowski and Vako were not done, and what has happened over the next six games, all without a loss for the Quakes and highlighted by a 3-0 statement win over the LA Galaxy in the Cali Clasico at Stanford Stadium this past weekend, is testament to their ability to make an impact.

Wondo catches fire

Wondolowski was the first to step up, earning a start against the Chicago Fire midway through May and seizing on the opportunity. Just one goal shy of matching the all-time MLS goal scoring record — he’d been stuck at that step since last October — Wondolowski obliterated the mark with a four-goal performance that stunned everyone at Avaya Stadium. But the 36-year-old forward didn’t stop there. He went on to score four more goals in the next three games and was named MLS Player of the Month for May.

Here comes Vako

Vako had his own reawakening, getting his first start of the season since March in a road game at D.C. United and showing off the skillset only he has on the Quakes roster. Vako scored three times in San Jose’s ill-fated U.S. Open Cup run in mid-June and added three more goals in the last two league games. His two straight game-winning-goal performances earned him MLS Player of the Week, and he’s on the shortlist to receive the league’s monthly honor for June as well.

Almeyda played no favorites with his lineup decisions, preaching patience from those outside the organization, and rewarding hard work and effort in training within the squad. It’s never the size of the contract that’s important to the coach; it’s the passion to play and dedication to the cause that he values most. The Almeyda effect is the real deal.

“Yeah, he helps us a lot, and we are doing a good job,” Vako said. “So we need to continue like that.”

The Georgian striker has often been maligned for playing selfishly, eschewing a pass to a teammate and instead looking for his own scoring opportunities. But Vako’s ability to take on defenders is unparalleled on the team, and meshing his strengths with Almeyda’s bigger tactical plan simply needed time. Vako’s come to understand that, and in two straight games he’s been the most dynamic player on the field for San Jose.

“He’s been perfect,” Almeyda said. “He needs to stay on this path; it’s the only way he will keep his position and he is demonstrating that he has improved a lot.”

To his credit, Vako didn’t mope when benched back in April, though it certainly had to be a blow to his ego. Previously a regular with the Georgia national team, he was not called into the squad for their most recent games, and he took the opportunity to really dedicate himself to the Earthquakes.

“What’s most important is how I feel now, and I feel good,” Vako said. “I can only look to the future.”

Vako has four goals as the Earthquakes reach the midway point of the regular season, and the team now sits in fifth place in the Western Conference. If his recent attitude and production continue in the back half of the campaign, the Quakes will be serious playoff contenders come October.

All-Star nod for the captain

No one’s ever questioned Wondolowski’s dedication to the Earthquakes, and now with 152 total goals in his MLS career, eight so far this season, he shows no signs of slowing down. Wondolowski is only two goals away from hitting double-digits for the 10th straight season, a record he values even more than the all-time mark, especially as it is really an indication of a complete team effort. He doesn’t get many of those goals without the help of his teammates.

Wondolowski’s resurgence in May was also rewarded with a surprise selection the MLS All-Star Game squad. The Quakes captain made his last appearance in the midsummer spectacle back in 2016, when the game was played at Avaya Stadium. This season, he’ll represent the MLS against Atletico Madrid as the annual showcase takes place in Orlando. It’s his fifth career All-Star selection, and it marks a fitting tribute to the goalscorer’s accomplishments.

“It’s a great honor to be an All-Star, though a lot of credit to my teammates,” Wondolowski said. “They’ve helped push me through sometimes and they’ve given me some great goals as well, so I really appreciate them and it’s pretty cool that I get to represent the Earthquakes.”

Wondolowski is not so much a creator as he is a finisher, and for the team’s captain to represent San Jose against Atletico Madrid is as much an honor for him as it is for his teammates. For Almeyda, it is a worthy reward that everyone in the organization can enjoy.

“It brings happiness to everyone, especially for him, his family, and to the club, that he has been selected to be in the match,” Almeyda said. “All the merit goes to him. He has worked hard this year, and he scored the goals he needed to become the league’s all-time greatest goal scorer. He deserves it, and we hope he enjoys it and hope he keeps scoring for us as well.”

A bright horizon

The Earthquakes, once saddled with a -12 goal differential after the month of March, now claim a +1 mark in that regard. They are are 6-1-4 in their last 11 games, the best record in that stretch in the Western Conference, and only NYCFC has been better, posting a 6-0-5 mark in its last 11 matches. The Quakes haven’t enjoyed such a run of form like they are on right now since 2012, the year they won the Supporters’ Shield.

But the job is not done, not for Almeyda and not for the players. The Quakes are on pace to make the playoffs, gaining respect among pundits, but they still have steps to take, and the coaching staff is not going to let anyone rest on his laurels. From Wondolowski, to Vako, to everyone up and down the roster, the message is still the same.

“We believe in hard work,” Almeyda said. “We believe in this team. From the moment we got here, we’ve believed in them and we will keep believing in them. All the merit goes to the players, who have done a great job understanding our plan.”

Almeyda has his players’ eyes on the prize, and though some dips in form are to be expected, this summer is showing great promise for soccer in San Jose.

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