SAN JOSE, Calif. — As fans settled into their seats at Avaya Stadium last Saturday to watch the San Jose Earthquakes take on the Portland Timbers, one question came to minds of many as the opening whistle sounded: Where’s Wondo?
With the Quakes mired in a four-game losing streak and dangerously close to squandering a favorable home-heavy schedule in the first months of the season, Matias Almeyda knew something had to change.
The head coach, whose heralded arrival in San Jose was not going to plan in the standings, was frustrated by the inconsistency with which the players were picking up his much ballyhooed tactical man-marking and pressing strategy. Against the Timbers, also winless heading into the weekend, he elected to adjust his lineup rather than compromise his vision for how he wants the team to play.
The biggest change to the starting lineup was benching Chris Wondolowski, the team’s captain to start the season, in favor of Danny Hoesen, last year’s leading scorer and team MVP. Wondolowski has scored more career goals against Portland than any other player, but he was experiencing a slump in 2019, having failed to register a single shot on goal in four games.
Hoesen had come off the bench in those games, providing a spark on offense that was too little, too late for the struggling Quakes. Almeyda made the move to start Hoesen, and it paid immediate dividends as the Earthquakes notched three first-half goals — the first time that had happened since Aug. 19, 2015 at Sporting Kansas City — including one from Hoesen en route to a convincing 3-0 victory over the Timbers.
Wondolowski was an unused substitute on the night, and the Quakes won in impressive fashion without their talisman on the field. His streak of 91 straight appearances, the third longest streak for a field player in MLS history, unceremoniously came to an end. The last time Wondolowski was in an Earthquakes matchday 18 and did not take the field was April 10, 2010. By the third game of the 2010 season, he was a fixture in the lineup (when not away on national team duty) for nearly a decade.
“It’s difficult when we are not getting the results we want and we need to change players and positions,” Almeyda explained during his midweek press conference, “but the players know they are all important and I will use them all as the season goes on.”
Wondolowski entered the season just one goal behind Landon Donovan for the top spot on the MLS all-time goal scoring list. It is a record he has been trying to top without success since the end of last season, and Almeyda saw an opportunity to give the striker a break.
“Chris surely will his achieve his dream this year of becoming the league’s all-time top scorer,” Almeyda said. “I felt he had a lot of pressure on him and I wanted to let him rest and not let all that pressure fold him, because we are a team and not just a single player. It was good for him. He will keep training with a positive attitude, and that demonstrates his professionalism.”
Almeyda, who was named MLS coach of the week after achieving his first league win against the Timbers, previously started Wondolowski as the center forward in a four-man attacking formation that features two wide midfielder/forwards and a withdrawn central midfielder. It was a demanding assignment for the 36-year-old Wondolowski, and the inclusion of Hoesen in his place gave the team a more dynamic look up top.
“I really liked the intensity, how they attacked from the sides, how they combined inside, the patience we showed to hold the game and move the ball from one side to another,” Almeyda said following Saturday’s game. “Hopefully we can continue like this.”
Hoesen’s delayed introduction to the starting lineup was in part due to the Dutch striker’s time away from the team in preseason as he pursued his U.S. Green Card, one he finally secured after a month-long wait. The personal sacrifice to miss training will give the Quakes some roster flexibility moving forward, and now he feels almost back to full game fitness.
“Obviously it was tough,” Hoesen shared last weekend. “I missed a few weeks of training. I’ve been away and I needed to get fit and get a lot of training sessions in my system. Coach told me I had to be patient. Today was my chance. One goal could have been five, but I’m happy.”
Indeed, Almeyda also called out the striker for his missed scoring opportunities, agreeing that Hoesen could have bagged at least a hat trick against the beleaguered Timbers defense. Still, his performance was an improvement over the productivity Wondolowski delivered in the first four games of 2019, a good sign for a team that needs to capitalize on its chances.
The man of the match against the Timbers was Cristian Espinoza, who tormented the visitors as part of the Earthquakes four-man attack. The Argentine scored a goal and added an assist, finishing second in voting for MLS Player of the Week. He has gained the trust of Almeyda in the starting lineup and is ready to partner with whoever the coach chooses at forward.
“There isn’t very much difference,” Espinoza shared last Saturday. “They’re both great players. We’re all working hard. It shows you that we have different options on the forward line. Like I said before, we’ve played four games and haven’t been able to give Wondo a lot of clear options, but hopefully from now on, Wondo or Danny can keep scoring a lot of goals.”
Almeyda is unlikely to start games with both players on the field, but there will be times, as there were in the first four games of the year, when having Wondolowski and Hoesen on the field together will power the Quakes attack. Other situations may require some lineup shuffles and Wondolowski will earn back his starting role. The coach is simply pleased to have his options.
As to Wondo’s pursuit of the MLS goal-scoring record, it still a case of not if, but when. It may take a little longer than anticipated, but everyone in the organization is excited for the day is arrives. And when it comes, those fans at Avaya Stadium who’ve watched him play uninterrupted for nearly a decade will be first in line to graciously receive their commemorative Wondo pins, no question at all.