Magnus Eriksson scored the lone goal for the Quakes, giving the hosts an early lead at sold-out Avaya Stadium. But the Impact struck back through their stars, with Ignacio Piatti scoring on a short corner and Saphir Taider providing the game-winning goal just before halftime.
The loss was the first by the Earthquakes on an opening night since Avaya Stadium opened in 2015, and it came on the heels of the worst season in franchise history. Still, there were some positives to take away from the game, especially as the team looks to rebound ahead of next week’s opponent, Minnesota United.
Best of times, worst of times
The Quakes are putting a lot of faith in Matias Almeyda and his coaching staff to turn around the fortunes of the team, and a grueling preseason training camp focused on fitness was a necessary first step in allowing the head coach to implement his aggressive man-marking defensive plan.
Against the Impact, it worked very well at times, allowing the Earthquakes to dominate possession against a Montreal side that comes into the 2019 season with very high expectations of its own.
“I take away a lot of positives from this game, especially the attitude and collective play,” Almeyda said through a translator. “We had possession of the ball a lot in the second half, and during the first half it was 50 percent or so. This shows a team that wants to be a protagonist, a team that is not going to be left behind waiting for an individual action. Instead, a team that is going to play like a team.”
San Jose definitely looked much better at times using Almeyda’s system than they did last season when the strategy was more passive. Still, it is a style of play that allows for very few lapses, especially against teams like Montreal that prefer to counter quickly when they gain possession.
For Wondolowski, who unsurprisingly wore the captain’s armband for San Jose, his initial takeaway from the game was positive, especially given the progress he and the team have made in adopting Almeyda’s tactics, but he further explained that they’d need to better, especially against other more aggressive opponents.
“It was a mixed bag,” Wondolowski said. “Early, we came out and executed Matias’s game plan, but we fell off the plan for 10-20 minutes and gave up a few goals. In the second half, we started to find possession again in the build-up. But again, it’s frustrating and not a good result.”
A wonderful fact to reflect upon
The Earthquakes’ good start on the night culminated with Eriksson’s goal, and the enthusiastic crowd roared in approval. The reaction was acknowledged from players throughout the locker room and provided a vital boost.
But taking the lead also awoke Montreal, which put in more effort to gain possession. The Quakes retreated somewhat into their own half of the field, backing off on the pressure they exerted in the Impact, and looking more to react to the run of play. The coach was not entirely pleased with the response.
“When we were up 1-0, we played more on the counter, and that’s not something we should do,” Almeyda said. “There are details we have to improve on, and I will discuss them with the players.”
He acknowledged that his plan requires cohesiveness among the players, and this can lead to some more methodical periods of play. Almeyda cautioned about moving to far away from each individual’s strengths, and he is still looking for the best balance of teamwork and togetherness on the field.
“I want the players to express themselves because the people are paying to watch a spectacle,” Almeyda said, “and we need to give them that.”
Wondolowski, who had few opportunities to contribute in the attacking third, finished the night still one goal behind Landon Donovan for the all-time MLS scoring record. He was pleased with effort overall, but lamented the team’s inability to break down the Impact defense, especially as it sat deeper in its own zone in the second half, protecting a 2-1 lead.
“When we do execute it well, it is a brilliant plan and really highlights our attributes,” Wondolowski said. “It is exciting, but it was tougher against a team that was sitting back a little deeper, but at the same time, we needed to be more dynamic to break them down.”
Eriksson, playing more centrally and looking comfortable in the role, appreciated how Almeyda’s system kept Montreal from building up possession past the center line. Unfortunately, it also meant that the Earthquakes were too often bogged down in the field zones in front of the Impact penalty area.
“They were pretty low in their defense, and it was pretty hard to break their lines, but we worked on,” Eriksson said. “I don’t know how many scoring opportunities they had, so it was tough, but we are looking forward, and we have a belief in what we are doing.”
Just six weeks ago, Wondolowski, Eriksson and the rest of their teammates were introduced to Almeyda’s plan, and no one believed then, as they do now, that it would lead to perfection by opening day. Some growing pains are to be expected, especially in the first month of the season. The goal has been and will continue to be centered around consistent improvement in performances and results.
“It’s going to be an evolving process throughout the year,” Wondolowski said. “To put it frankly, we don’t want to be peaking in three weeks, we want to be peaking in 30 weeks and hitting our stride. Granted, we don’t want to dig ourselves into a hole. We want to make sure we are playing well and eliminating these mistakes because we feel that when we do that, we have a great team.”
Prodigious strength in sorrow and despair
It’s not that the Quakes were bad on the night, rather Montreal was very effective in their own approach to the game. Piatti, especially, thrives on the counterattack, and he was consistently pushing the right side of San Jose’s defense. Nick Lima in particular, primarily responsible for tracking Piatti, had a tough assignment. His other mark, Taider, scored the Impact’s second goal of the game.
Lima was the first player taken out by Almeyda, replaced by Tommy Thompson early in the second half, in a move that was more to add more skill to the offense than an indictment on the starter’s performance. It was an okay night for the U.S. men’s national team hopeful, one he’ll learn from moving forward. It was a message Almeyda expected to resonate with everyone in the squad.
“I told the players, it is going to take some time to change, but now is the time to bounce back and demonstrate everyone’s character,” Almeyda said. “There is a light that is coming, and we’ll move on and work, that’s the only way to get out of this situation.”
Whereas last season, a loss such as the one Quakes experienced Saturday would have resulted in a somber locker room, the mood after the Montreal game was noticeably upbeat. The players were huddled in conversations with each other and some of the supporting staff. They were learning from, rather than forgetting, what had transpired on the field.
“The feeling that we have in this locker room is way better than it was last year,” Eriksson said. “We have a big belief in what we are doing, and we are enjoying our time here together. I see this as the first game that the result is not with us, but I think that the performance is decent.”
Still, there are no moral victories in MLS, even for a team that has a long way to go to improve off its 2018 season. With 12 teams fighting for seven playoff spots in the Western Conference, every game matters, especially those played at home. The Earthquakes have as their goal making Avaya Stadium their castle in 2019.
“We want to show that we have a team that can and will be dangerous,” Wondolowski said, “but, again, this league shows you that if you turn off, even for a second, you will get punished.”