Following the shortest off-season in MLS history, the league is ready to embark on its 22nd campaign. For the San Jose Earthquakes, the time off couldn’t pass fast enough, as the team, which has missed the postseason for four consecutive years, looks to start 2017 on the right foot.
The Quakes finished in ninth place in the Western Conference in 2016, scoring only 32 goals in 34 games. The offensive futility was difficult to watch for fans and a challenge to stomach for players, as San Jose limped to the finish line. Everyone associated with the Earthquakes is looking for more from the organization as it begins its 20th MLS season.
New general manager Jesse Fioranelli and technical director Chris Leitch have overseen an off-season signings spree that will make an impact on the roster from opening day. Five international players, two draft picks, and the club’s second-ever Homegrown Player signing join a squad that was talented but not deep. Head coach Dominic Kinnear, starting his third year in charge, has not had a lot of time to integrate the new players into the rotation, but he knows the team has no excuses to start the season off without a complete effort.
“We are still assessing it because guys have only been here altogether for a week or two,” said Kinnear. “Overall, with the personnel with have, I’m excited about it.”
Star striker Chris Wondolowski, who will be looking to extend his streak of seasons with double-digit goals scored to eight, is also impressed with his new teammates. The man known to all simply as “Wondo” is expected to partner with Costa Rican forward Marco Urena in the Quakes season opener against the Montreal Impact this Saturday evening at Avaya Stadium.
“I’m liking the cohesion we are continuing to build,” said Wondolowski. “For Saturday, it will be putting together all the things we have bought into with this whole system.”
Along with Urena, the Earthquakes are expected to give rookie Nick Lima and veteran Bundesliga defender Florian Jungwirth their first MLS starts against the Impact. Playmaker Jahmir Hyka and forward Danny Hoesen, both who scored goals in the Quakes 4-1 demolition of the Sacramento Republic FC in last weekend’s preseason finale, will likely make their MLS debuts off the bench.
The Earthquakes never scored more than three goals all of last season, but they rarely gave up many goals either. For Wondolowski, the improvements needed in 2017 will be on both sides of the ball, but it ultimately comes down to the team’s collective attitude, which took a hit by the end of 2016’s disappointing season.
“Is has been difficult, especially the last two years, we’ve done a lot of good things, but some things we did not do well and we have to learn from those mistakes,” said Wondolowski. “Both seasons, coming into the last weeks, we were playing for something, and in order to do that again, we have to play a full 90 minutes. Too many times we would play well at certain times and then had mental lapses, and we were punished for that, rightfully so. I think that’s our biggest thing.”
San Jose’s season opener opponent Montreal came within extra time of qualifying for MLS Cup last November, losing in the Eastern Conference final to fellow Canadian side Toronto FC. Superstar Didier Drogba is longer with the Impact, but the team still boasts some dangerous attacking players, and Kinnear knows his side will need to be focused for the entirety of the game to keep them under control.
“They are a good team,” assessed Kinnear. “They have a lot of offensive weapons. We have to watch them on the counterattack because that is when (Ignacio) Piatti and (Dominic) Oduro come alive. They do play a little bit different at times, sometimes they sit in, sometimes they pressure. The key for them is their first pass going forward. Can they get it to a guy that can do something with it. It’s important for us when we are attacking to be really mindful of where they are at when the ball turns over, because sometimes it does.”
Kinnear had his team using the preseason to institute a pressing mentality when the other team possessed the ball, with players up and down the field working aggressively to force opponents to make turnovers. Urena at the forward position, Fatai Alashe and Anibal Godoy in midfield, and Lima on defense were exceptional in this endeavor, but it won’t be a strategy that the Quakes employ for the entire game, likely in spells to disrupt the Impact.
“Yes, but not for the full 90 minutes, because that is impossible,” warned Kinnear. “We have to have a mentality that when teams come to San Jose, it’s going to be a difficult match. It’s not just second balls, but when the ball turns over, it’s the pressure we can put on these guys and try to limit the space their good guys can have because if you give them too much space, you are asking for trouble.”
It will be a tricky balance for the Earthquakes to sit back and defend versus press Montreal in their own half. The team’s fitness coming out of preseason is strong, but there are still issues of chemistry building that are a work in progress.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Wondolowski. “You do have to balance it out because they are such a great team on the counterattack and they break so well with speed, especially with Piatti, Oduro, and (Matteo) Mancuso. You have to be patient and smart about how you go about it, but we are playing at home, and we plan to go out there and put our influence, our stamp on the game and getting three points.”
The recipe for success in MLS, a league built on parity, is to win at home and collect as many points as possible on the road. To that end, the Quakes will look to Saturday’s season opener against the Impact as an opportunity to create a fortress mentality at Avaya Stadium. Even the new guys, many who are not as familiar with the playoffs system of MLS, know what’s at stake.
“We have to show from the opening whistle on Saturday that we are back,” shared Jungwirth, “and that we want to do better like in past years when we won. We want to be a part of the playoffs, and maybe even more. But Saturday is very important. The start of the season is always important no matter where you play, and we want to win and build our confidence that everything is possible.”
San Jose Earthquakes Projected Starting XI
Goalkeeper: David Bingham
Defenders: Nick Lima, Victor Bernardez, Florian Jungwirth, Shaun Francis
Midfielders: Tommy Thompson, Fatai Alashe, Anibal Godoy, Simon Dawkins
Forwards: Marco Urena, Chris Wondolowski