In addition to a flurry of important player moves during the off-season, San Jose Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli made one change that more than the rest will resonate greatly around Avaya Stadium in the 2018 MLS season: the hiring of new head coach Mikael Stahre.
The Swedish coach is an MLS newcomer, but he learned a lot from Fioranelli about what to expect in moving across the Atlantic, and the 42 year old is prepared to adapt to the rigors of what his new league has in store.
“I am really excited,” said Stahre in his first interview with the media following the start of San Jose’s preseason camp. “It is always fun to be a part of a new team, and I am very happy to be here and work together with the staff and the players.”
“I’m confident to be a coach,” added Stahre, and then continuing with a smile, “but I am also a bit afraid, in a positive way.”
The young, but experienced, coach takes over an Earthquakes team that qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in five seasons last year, and expectations for 2018 are to exceed that accomplishment, adding another step forward in becoming a perennial postseason presence. Such lofty ambitions are born of Fioranelli’s four-year plan for San Jose, and now Stahre will be tasked with seeing that those goals come to fruition.
“I’ve been a coach for many years now,” said Stahre. “I’m not so old, but I have been around a bit, and when Jesse called me to give me this opportunity to coach in MLS and San Jose, with the history over here and the league growing, it’s a great challenge for me, a great opportunity, but also a huge, huge challenge. It’s always a challenge to manage a new team, in a new country, with a new language, but I’m super excited.”
The young coach will have the team’s oldest player backing him to get the job done. Chris Wondolowski, who celebrates his 35th birthday this Sunday, has seen the best and worst of San Jose Earthquakes soccer in his nine seasons in black and blue. The Quakes captain has been impressed with what he has seen from Stahre in their brief time together.
“He’s very organized,” said Wondolowski. “We haven’t gone into anything tactically yet, more of a welcome. I love his attitude, he has an energy about him, and the way he has come around so far.”
Stahre himself admitted that he did not have a concrete plan for what formation he would employ in the team, and who might be favored to make the starting eleven for the season opener against Minnesota United on March 3, but he remains open to learning about his squad over the next five weeks of training camp.
“I must be myself,” said Stahre. “I have my ideas, but my most important idea is that I have to be flexible. So, let’s see. Let’s practice hard everyday, to take care of every session, and then we’ll see. Hopefully, we can win a lot games.”
Wondolowski, very aware that as a new coach, Stahre will likely want to put his stamp on affairs when it comes to setting a direction for the team, expects that the rookie MLS manager will be able to leverage what the players went through in what was a very turbulent 2017, Fioranelli’s first year in charge as general manager.
“With that whole season, with the roller coaster ride that it was, we were able to take some great learning lessons,” said Wondolowski. “We had some highs, making the playoffs, and some other things we did well, and kept that core and hopefully those values. The thing I most excited about are the lessons we learned. They were hard lessons and they were tough lessons, rightfully so.”
From Dominic Kinnear’s reign to begin the season, and the veteran coach’s defensive-first approach, to Chris Leitch’s more open style of play during an up and down summer, to a late run of sturdy play leading to a postseason berth, the Earthquakes never had a consistent tactical identity in 2017. Stahre will be mindful of what occurred in San Jose last season, but he has his gaze focused forward on what the team can become under his leadership in 2018.
“It is not really important to to evaluate what the previous coaches did too much,” said Stahre. “For me, you have to defend and you have to attack, and you must find a mix of that. In the past, I’ve used the 4-4-2 formation, but, for example, in my previous job, we started in a 4-5-1 formation and ended up in a 3-4-3, so formation-wise, I am really flexible.”
The hours of games watched, the long conversations with stakeholders already with the Earthquakes, the years of experience he brings with him from coaching in Sweden and elsewhere around the world: These all will play a crucial role in Stahre’s preparation for what is in front of him, and all were underway well before he met the players on the field for the first time this week.
And now, with less than six weeks until MLS opening weekend, Stahre will need to put it all together and make the tough decisions regarding tactics and personnel that are his primary responsibility. He has the keys to the club; he simply needs to turn the ignition and take to the road.
“For me, it is like an empty paper,” said Stahre. “I have watched a lot of games, and now I am here as the head coach. It will be really interesting to follow them in the preseason, and I am looking forward to being in charge.”