In the first full training session of the preseason, the San Jose Earthquakes barely broke out in a sweat. What they did break out in was smiles and laughter, as new head coach Mikael Stahre kept the proceedings light and loose.
“It’s important to have fun, to put the smile on the player’s face,” said Stahre, “but we will work hard during this preseason, for sure.”
With the MLS season opener less than six weeks away, March 3 against Minnesota United at Avaya Stadium, the time available to get the team ready is short, and for the rookie head coach, a sense of urgency was evident as he mulled over his plan to have his squad prepared physically and tactically, one that will have to come together on short order.
“I can’t wait too long,” said Stahre. “For me, I have some ideas. I’ve watched many games and talked the the GM, the front office, and the coaching staff. I have some basic ideas, and then we’ll see in a little bit. Ask me in a couple weeks, and I’ll have a better answer.”
Stahre talked briefly about having a clean slate to work with as he takes charge of the decision making. The Swedish coach is certainly excited for the opportunity, but he felt it was too early to talk about starting line-ups and the depth chart.
“I must be myself,” said Stahre. “I have my ideas, but it is most important for me to be flexible. Let’s see. Let’s practice hard everyday to take care of every session and then we’ll see.”
The first day of training started with the infamous “beep test” in which players race against an increased pace interval over a short sprint, testing their endurance in the process. Shea Salinas, the second oldest member of the team, entering his 11th MLS season, finished first in the de-facto fitness competition. He was followed by Tommy Thompson in second, and, to the surprise of many, Chris Wondolowski. The most veteran player on the roster, Wondo will celebrate his 35th birthday this Sunday, but for this morning, he looked ageless.
“It is what it is,” deadpanned Wondolowski. “It is hard to compete with Shea.”
Wondolowski has missed the start of Earthquakes preseason training each year since 2011 because of his annual invitations to the U.S. men’s national team January camp, so getting to be with his San Jose teammates from the get-go is very important to the Quakes captain.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Wondolowski. “The exciting part is that I can give from minute one everything I have to this club, as it should be. We have implemented all the core players and values that we were able to store in this group and now carry that forward from last year, but also add some key pieces that are eager to fit in. We are finding that cohesion right now.”
One of those new faces is Joel Qwiberg, who is expected to compete for the starter’s role at left fullback. The Colombian born and Swedish raised defender has felt at home since his arrival in San Jose a few weeks ago, and he looks forward to a productive preseason.
“I’m almost ready to go,” said Qwiberg. “Of course, I still have a bit to work on, but I think I have a good ground to stand on to get started with, and the most important thing to me is to be healthy and prepared for the preseason. In Sweden, we have a very long preseason, but here it’s more intense, only five weeks, so I spent the last few weeks getting prepared for what’s coming.”
Following the beep-test, the Quakes stuck to fitness related drills for the rest of the session. Stahre broke the team up into small groups for games of keep-away and mini-field scrimmages, all the while moving from one group to another encouraging the players on. And when one set of players lost to the other, those on the wrong end of the result got in some extra fitness by completing push-ups.
Stahre kept the on-ball activity simple throughout the session, indicating later that he will introduce more soccer activities on Friday as he gets the team ready for an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Avaya Stadium. Dubbed the Black & Blue Scrimmage, the event is closed to the general public, but free for season pass holders.
- Of the 26 players under contact and the 4 recent MLS SuperDraft picks on the roster, all but 3 were in attendance for the first full training session. New acquisitions Magnus Eriksson and Yeferson Quintana have not yet arrived in San Jose, but a club spokesperson said that they are expected to join up with the team in about a week’s time. Second-year defender Nick Lima was also missing, but he has a good excuse: He is training with the U.S. men’s national team as part of it’s annual January camp in Los Angeles.
- Jahmir Hyka arrived the night before, so he still had some fitness tests to complete before he takes to the playing field for the first time. Sporting a new haircut, he visited the training ground and received a warm welcome from his teammates.
- New assistant coach Alex de Crook (wearing black in the cover photo above) was on hand, helping Stahre with the proceedings. With over 29 years experience in soccer, starting as a player in the Netherlands and in roles as a youth coach and director, the Dutch native joins returning assistant coach Steve Ralston on Stahre’s coaching staff in San Jose. Three years ago, de Crook served as an assistant coach under Stahre when both were with the Dalian Aerbin Football Club in China.
- The Quakes also welcomed new goalkeeper coach Jyri Nieminen to the technical staff. The 30-year-old Finnish native most recently served as the goalkeeper coach for the Aspire Academy and Qatar U-17 National Team since 2015, where he specialized in elite player development and game analysis.