The day before his 29th birthday, Florian Jungwirth strutted off the field after a long training session with the San Jose Earthquakes, looking as if he was ready to immediately turn right around and do it again. He was having fun again, back with his teammates after a busy off-season, knowing that the club’s prospects for 2018 were strong.
The Bundesliga veteran, about to embark on his sophomore season in MLS, flashed his trademark smile before acknowledging that there were some big changes around the team: first and foremost, the hiring of a new head coach, Sweden’s Mikael Stahre, who brings in a new attitude and approach to the squad’s preparation, as well as a bevy of new and relatively untested young players. Still, any uncertainty about how everyone will work together dissipated quickly with the start of preseason camp.
“I am excited to work with the new guys, the new coaching staff, the old guys too,” said Jungwirth. “It’s going to be a good year.”
After a debut MLS season in which he captained the Earthquakes back line and earned the team’s Defender of the Year award, Jungwirth admitted that there were some trying moments, especially after arriving in San Jose straight from featuring for former club Darmstadt over the starting half of the Bundesliga season. At that time, he didn’t have a proper off-season to recharge his body and mind, and it may have somewhat diminished his performance. The German made it very clear that this year would be an improvement.
“First off, I hope I stay healthy, that is the most important thing,” said Jungwirth. “One on side, last year was a very good year for me, but it was tough. I played half a season in the Bundesliga and then one season here. All in all, I played 57 games during those 15 months. It was a very tough time, so I am sure when I start this season, I am going to play better than last year because I have more power, especially as compared to last season.”
In 2017, Jungwirth featured in 30 regular season games for the Earthquakes, all starts, as well as a handful of games in San Jose’s semifinal run in the U.S. Open Cup. More accustomed to playing as a defensive midfielder earlier in his career, Jungwirth was installed as the team’s starting center back from the beginning of the season through its playoff appearance against the Vancouver Whitecaps. He would often share to others that he preferred the midfield, but he always stepped up to play wherever the team needed him most. Stahre, since signing on as head coach in the off-season, has studied plenty of video from last season, and he sees an even bigger role for Jungwirth in 2018.
“Yeah, hopefully he can do even more,” said Stahre. “From my point of view, he can play both central defender and central midfielder. I expect he will be an even better leader, actually, and bring his experience from the Bundesliga more this year.”
This off-season, the Earthquakes made some additions to the defensive corps that might allow Jungwirth to move up in the formation. Yeferson Quintana, just 21 years old, arrives on a one year loan from Uruguay powerhouse Penarol and projects as a starter for San Jose. Panama veteran Harold Cummings, who missed all of last season with an injury, is rounding into shape and could start as well. Francois Affolter, who was acquired last summer, Reno 1868 FC call-up Jimmy Ockford, and Homegrown signing Jacob Akanyirige are capable of providing cover.
A subtraction to the roster may also favor Jungwirth’s ambitions, as the Earthquakes opened up a place in the line-up for a true #6 defensive midfielder when Darwin Ceren was traded to the Houston Dynamo. If all goes well this preseason with San Jose’s new-look center back five-some, Jungwirth, who played as a central midfielder during the 2017 Open Cup tournament, will be in line to get more opportunities to play that role in 2018.
“We will see,” mused Jungwirth. “The transfers we did have given us the opportunities to have some creativity in the line-up, and wherever the coach needs me, I’m ready to go. I showed last year that I am one of the best defenders in the league, and I am sure I could have the same importance as a midfielder for the team, provide some more stabilization maybe. So where he needs me, I’m there.”
Stahre will be the third head coach to lead the Earthquakes in Jungwirth’s one-year tenure in San Jose, and the Swede has made it clear from the beginning of preseason that he is still determining the best formation and tactics for the team. New assistant coach Alex de Crook joined the staff earlier this year as well, bringing his advanced training acumen from his native Netherlands to the squad. As a whole, the coaching staff, with only a month left to get ready for the MLS season opener, has their work cut out for them, but Jungwirth is confident they can do the job and guide the Quakes to another successful season.
“Last year we reached the playoffs, we reached the Open Cup semifinal, both were good results, but, to be honest, the gap to the top teams was a bit too high in my opinion,” said Jungwirth. “It is very important that we close this gap, and with the new coaching staff, we have some really good guys that will bring experience from Europe which I am convinced will help us. It’s important to start from day one, like we did this week, all the way to March 2, one day before the first game. I am convinced we have a good line-up, good guys on the bench, a good roster, and a very good game plan as well to be more consistent, especially on the road. I am excited for this year.”