SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes made a big splash, not only in MLS, but on the international scene, when they named Matias Almeyda their new head coach last October. It was a bold move for a team that was stumbling to a last-place finish in the Western Conference, but one that needed to be made to shake up the franchise.
It was also, practically speaking, the quickest fix the Quakes could make, given that a complete roster overhaul would be a challenge. From the end of 2018 to the dawn of the 2019, San Jose released only two players of significance while adding four. If Almeyda is going to find success in turning around the Earthquakes, he’s going to have to do it with a lot of the same players that faltered last season.
The Argentine coach is no stranger to difficult situations; rather, he said in his welcoming press conference, that he seeks them out. Since taking over day-to-day duties, Almeyda, along with an impressive set of assistant coaches, has gone about the task of rallying the squad around a new way of thinking and acting, on and off the field, and the players are responding.
The Earthquakes begin their 2019 MLS regular season on Saturday when they host the Montreal Impact. The team finished the preseason with a 3-0 win against Los Angeles FC and a 2-2 draw with the Seattle Sounders — two respectable results against league foes — but the real test of Almeyda’s plan, and whether the the players he’s inherited can follow through on it, is yet to come.
“We wanted to give the same players another chance,” Almeyda shared with Pro Soccer USA last week through a translator. “They are going to show that they can get out of that situation with hard work and sacrifice, staying humble and showing teamwork. We believe they can get better and be a competitive team.”
From his time coaching Guadalajara in Liga MX, Almeyda has emphasized an active style of play that features tight defending and an aggressive attempt to recover the ball when the opponent is in possession. It’s a much more demanding tactical strategy than the Earthquakes employed last year, when the team would play with more with positional discipline.
“Obviously, it is very well thought out, and it’s man-marking defensively,” defender Nick Lima said following the preseason draw with Seattle Saturday. “We have to have a lot of communication to switch in short, little moments, and not have huge holes on the field, which happens sometimes. It’s being smart on the ball offensively, and not putting ourselves into situations where we are not with our man if we turn the ball over in bad spots which is how we can hurt ourselves in the system. We have a lot to learn, but it’s been a good start.”
Lima, who joined the rest of his teammates two weeks into the preseason following a very successful January camp with the U.S. men’s national team, is beginning his third season in San Jose. He was the only player on the roster to have started every game in 2018. An exhausting assignment, but one he felt well prepared fo. However he knows this season’s fitness demands will be even greater, and not just for himself.
“There’s been a growth mindset too,” Lima told Pro Soccer USA last week. “We started building a new foundation from the beginning, and we have taken it week by week. We’ve shown that we’ve gotten better and become more of a team.”
The Earthquakes were among the league’s worst defensive performers in 2018, shipping more goals than any team other than Orlando City, so a pragmatic approach would have been to improve in that area first. Instead, Almeyda is shooting for a completely new look, eschewing incremental improvements on last year’s foundation, laying his own framework for the team’s future.
Veteran center back Guram Kashia, who joined the Quakes last summer and provided a brief lift to the team’s defensive fortunes, is encouraging by Almeyda’s bold strategy. He stepped into the locker room last July just as the team dynamic was crumbling, and having a strong leader regain control of the squad is just one facet of San Jose’s larger ambitions.
“Step by step we are improving, but it is not like we are in the top, best shape right now,” Kashia told Pro Soccer USA. “It will take some time, because we are trying to adjust to the new coach. Plus he has completely new things for us, and you cannot in two weeks pick it up completely.”
Following a more than two week preseason training camp in Cancun, Mexico — one marked by a fitness regime never seen by those on the Quakes roster — the team returned to the States and promptly lost 3-0 to their USL Championship affiliate in Reno. It was not a fair test, as players had barely any time to rest during their Mexico experience, but that mattered little. They were beginning to see how Almeyda’s tactical strategy was going to unfold.
“There’s things we need to work on,” Lima said. “But I think the most important thing is going to be our workrate and our willingness to work as a team because that is the foundation of the system from Matias and from us.”
Even though the squad returned to the Bay Area with a loss on the scoresheet, it came away from the experience with a win in confidence. Chris Wondolowski, the longest tenured player on the squad and no stranger to the downs the Earthquakes have gone through in his 10 years in Black-and-Blue, just turned 36 and could be excused for not wanting to deal with another major change in philosophy. But he gave his full support of Almeyda and his efforts.
“We are starting to understand the system, understanding the way he wants us to play,” Wondolowski said after scoring two goals against Seattle. “It’s demanding, but at the same time it is fun and entertaining. It’s a joy to play.”
Other returning starters, like Magnus Eriksson, Vako, Anibal Godoy, and Harold Cummings, are also all-in on the changes. To a man, no player, when asked, is satisfied with what happened in 2018, and the commitment to the team’s new goals is something Almeyda insists everyone pledge. The coach has resisted openly talking about individual players and their expectations: the team is bigger than any one person.
“I want to focus on the group,” Almeyda said. “We have to triumph together as a unified team. I have been impressed as they have learned a new style, and hopefully it will continue to get better. We will continue to try to grow as a unified group.”
Kashia, who made his professional debut in his native Georgia more than a decade ago, won’t declare the plan is fully implemented, but he does see progress in every avenue. The season opener against the Montreal Impact is only days away, but it will take another month or two for Almeyda’s ideas to be fully realized. Still, he is encouraged by how his teammates, even with a language barrier built in for some, have bought in.
“It will take some time for the coaches and the players to achieve the best level,” Kashia said. “It will probably come like after five, six, seven games into the season when we understand each other more. Right now we have so much videos going on, many meetings, talking to each other, players, coaches, questions. We are definitely still in this process.”
Bumpy road ahead
The Earthquakes play four of their first five games of the season at home, the perfect incubator for Almeyda’s plan to take root. Aside from a grueling cross-country trip to play the New York Red Bulls, players and coaching staff will have few distractions as they continue to build on their preseason progress.
Kashia is well aware that the improvements have to come on and off the field. The growing camaraderie in the squad is part of that, but it’s also about rebuilding trust amongst one another. Too often in 2018, players underperformed and made excuses for the mounting losses. That can’t be the case this season, especially with the demands of Almeyda’s system.
“It is a tough system,” Kashia said. “It requires a lot of energy, sprints, chasing the [opposing] team everywhere on the field. If one player doesn’t make his job, it can also damage all the other players’ jobs, so you know we have to be really sharp in every game.”
Against the Sounders, the fragility of the system was under full display, as the Earthquakes were punished on a few occasions when players were not synced in their actions. Seattle’s first goal — a perfectly executed counterattack by Jordan Morris — caught the host’s defense stretched further up the field on a turnover.
The visitor’s second goal, though it possibly would have been overturned on review, revealed the need for players to quickly rotate when a teammate loses his own mark. The on-field communication required is improving, but until players are familiar with the system and how to rapidly convey it in detail during games, mistakes are likely to be a reality.
“Obviously, we can look at a lot of things we didn’t do well, things that were absent, maybe the cohesion of the group,” Lima said. “If we start there, then be more of a team, more of a unit, and, yes, there is a language barrier, so guys can bond over that. The closer we can get off the field, that will translate to on the field.”
Almeyda knows this too. The Quakes won four games last year — the fewest in the franchise’s history — and an improvement to double-digit wins in 2019 would be a huge achievement. The coach has stated that he wants to bring trophies to San Jose, but it’s going to take a significant turnaround from the existing roster to make that happen this season. Still, he’s committed to keeping the team on course.
“There are always things we can improve on,” Almeyda said. “After every game, we are going to analyze what we can improve on, when there is a margin to grow, that is a margin we can grow in.”
Resilience is key
The improvement in the team’s approach to the game doesn’t end with achieving the highest levels of fitness, it also requires a growth in mental confidence. Many of the veterans from last season point to the first month of the season as a tipping point for the remainder of the dismal campaign. The fortitude to withstand the lows was too often absent.
Almeyda has made it a priority to change that mindset. He doesn’t demand perfection in training sessions; rather, he rewards those players who put in the effort to reach their prescribed milestones. Kashia, captain of the Georgian national team and a leader off the field as well, is ready to step in and bolster any player’s confidence if he sees it flagging.
“During the season we will have some, for sure, great games,” Kashia said. “But we will have some bad games as well. It will be up and down as we adjust to him, and we must be ready for that.”
No team in MLS dropped more points from a winning position last season than the Earthquakes. When opponents scored, the response was often to look down, point fingers, dwell on the negative. As the losses mounted, so did the outward blaming, and complacency and indifference crept into the locker room. Everyone agrees that can’t be the case in 2019.
“It is about not being the victim,” Lima said following the 2-2 comeback against Seattle. “Last year, there were times when we thought we were the victims, and we weren’t able to dig deep and keep doing what we needed to keep doing.”
Almeyda’s message to the team from the minute he stepped on the training field in San Jose is to know what you can control and what you cannot. He’s empowered players with a sense of responsibility to the group, shedding off personal agendas for the sake of teamwork. Time will tell if the veterans take in that lesson and get results on the field, but the initial signs are that Almeyda is getting through to them.
“I must say I have good feelings. Compared to the last season we are a completely different team, with a completely different energy,” Kashia said. “There’s more teamwork right now and we are on the same page, so that’s really positive.”
In only three preseason games, the collective effort has moved forward in the correct direction. Eriksson is playing more to his strengths as a central midfielder. Lima is seeing more of the field, especially on offense. Vako is not trying on every possession to do it alone. It’s encouraging to see the progress, but there’s so much more to accomplish. How the Earthquakes perform against the Impact will be a signpost for all to see as to whether Almeyda’s influence is working.
“We need to stay the course,” Wondolowski said. “We’ve had a plan from the start, and we are starting to hit some of the stepping stones, and it’s exciting that the regular season is finally here, and hopefully it all comes together on Saturday.”