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Quakes Questions: Projecting the San Jose Earthquakes starting line-up

With the season opener a week away, what have we learned from the Quakes preseason games

The San Jose Earthquakes beat their USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC 4-0 in a preseason game at Avaya Stadium
Lyndsay Radnedge | Center Line Soccer

“What is your predicted starting 11 and formation on March 3rd?” — @offerlamm

Excellent question, Magnus. We are a week’s worth of sleeps away from the San Jose Earthquakes season opener on March 3 against Minnesota United, and the team is heading into the final stretch of its preseason preparations. Yesterday, the Quakes played a closed-door scrimmage against their USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC — their last scheduled friendly of the preseason — and head coach Mikael Stahre has worked out who he wants in his starting line-up.

“There’s always competition for sure,” Stahre shared after Friday’s training session, “but we have now played five games, and, of course, I have some ideas in my mind. You will see on Saturday who is starting.”

And the eleven winners are...? Well, this is where a little guesswork is going to be needed, given that Stahre isn’t going to spill the beans on his starting line-up. The games against Reno yesterday were closed to the media, so I was not able to watch and rate the different combinations of players Stahre employed on the day. We know he had all 30 of his players available — the 26 players under contract and the four unsigned draft picks — but who suited up for the Quakes and who may have lined up for Reno is a mystery.

On Wednesday, I attended Earthquakes training and filed this report, where I spoke at length with Stahre about the state of preparations for the season opener. We didn’t discuss directly the formation and starting eleven he plans to use against Minnesota, though we did a run-down of the potential starters. The back four seems locked in, especially based on the combination he has used in recent friendlies against Reno and the LA Galaxy. I made a comment that he had a tough job ahead of him figuring out which attackers to get on the field. This elicited a hearty laugh from the Swede — this is a good problem to have as a coach!

With that in mind, and using the preseason games as a guide, here is my projected San Jose Earthquakes starting line-up for the March 3rd MLS season opener against Minnesota United.

Projected San Jose Earthquakes opening day Starting XI

I went with a 4-4-2 formation, since that has been the primary set-up all preseason. Andrew Tarbell in goal is a given — he’s been the Quakes #1 since last summer — and the back four is settling in with the two center backs Harold Cummings and Yeferson Quintana flanked by full backs Shea Salinas and Nick Lima. Both Salinas and Lima will see a lot of opportunities to run the flanks for San Jose, as Stahre asks his players to employ a high press for much of the game. Depth on defense is still being worked out — this could be an Achilles heel for the Quakes to start the season.

The center of the formation in the 4-4-2 could be a flat two midfielder set-up, or it could be more unbalanced, with one player anchoring the line and the other given more freedom to move box-to-box. With that in mind, and looking at the qualities of the players available, I have to put Florian Jungwirth in the more defensive position and Anibal Godoy more as the attacker. That said, both can play this role interchangeably and as the situation warrants it. Fatai Alashe and Jackson Yueill are the next two in line, with Luis Felipe and Gilbert Fuentes behind them, to take the field. Yueill, especially, will get major minutes this season, especially if Godoy, as expected, spends considerable time with the World Cup bound Panamanian national team.

The wings... What to do on the wings... This is where Stahre has some tough decisions to make — the very ones he asked my opinion on that prompted his humorous reaction. In a standard 4-4-2, assuming the forward positions are locked in (more on that in a minute), the outside midfielders will play all across the field, not just cutting in from the sidelines, but they must also be mindful of defense when the full backs make overlapping runs. Stahre preaches a solid and stable defense when discussing his coaching style, so his wingers can’t simply buzz around in the attacking half. They will have a full responsibility to partake in defensive duties.

“From my perspective, defense is not just about the defending line,” Stahre said on Wednesday. “It’s from the attackers down to the goalkeeper. It’s all eleven players that are involved in the defense.”

Sounds a bit like the much derided Dom-ball — the defense-first pragmatic approach former Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear used to varying degrees of success — and his saying of “Eleven Playing as One.” My thoughts on this style are simple: When the personnel best match a defend and counterattack strategy, use it. Stahre has more to work with this season than Kinnear ever had in his Quakes tenure, and this should allow the Swede more freedom to build attacking possession tactics into his approach. It will still be a “score more goals and concede fewer goals” mentality, but the players at his disposal allow Stahre to make it entertaining to watch.

Where was I? Ah, yes, the wide midfielders. Let’s run down the available list of candidates: Magnus Eriksson, Jahmir Hyka, Vako, Tommy Thompson, Eric Calvillo, and Chris Wehan — six total players for two positions, though only the first four are in serious consideration to make the opening day line-up. Eriksson was San Jose’s most significant off-season acquisition, and the Swedish attacker has shown his grit on the field. He is not exceptionally fast, something he fully admits, but he will not lose the ball easily. Eriksson was held out of the Quakes recent 4-2 victory over the Galaxy, so that could be a sign he will start the season as a substitute. I still see him lining up on the right side of the midfield on March 3.

Vako will start, period. The Georgian international was the most potent attacking player on the field for the Quakes by the end of 2017, and despite his defensive liabilities, commands the attention of opposing teams. The real question is whether he should play as an inverted winger on the left side of the formation, move centrally as a true #10, or even play up top as a forward. Vako’s talent is not in question, only where in the formation that talent will be put to best use. For now, I put him on the left wing, with Salinas his defensive support.

Hyka and Thompson, the two next in line, could very well deserve starting spots too. The “Albanian Messi” — I love that nickname, by the way, and I’m not going to let it go — was not a go-to player for Chris Leitch last season, but when he was on the field, he was a difference maker. He looked very good against the Galaxy last weekend in place of Eriksson, something that must have Stahre’s attention. Thompson, the fan favorite, has looked fantastic this preseason, and he is elevating his game to a level that will make him a “must-start” player before long.

So many decisions, especially for the 4-4-2 central line, but very few compromises.

That leaves the forwards, who, at this point, are Danny Hoesen and Chris Wondolowski, no question. The Dutchman probably has the best feet on the team, though he does favor his right a bit too much, and his passing display against LA was masterful. Hoesen is not a true #9 — a bruising target forward (Quincy Amarikwa is more suited to that role) — but he does show some decent hold-up play. Wondolowski, the 35 year old Energizer bunny, is going to get plenty of minutes this season as he attempts to break Landon Donovan’s MLS scoring record. Wondo needs 12 more to achieve that feat, and he’ll be starting every game until he does so.

Would the Starting XI look any different if Stahre goes with a more attack-minded 4-3-3 formation? Certainly — perhaps Vako moves centrally, and Hyka or Thompson replace Godoy — but that is a look that would more likely be used later in games, especially if the Quakes are looking for a goal. Even my predicted line-up could be considered a 4-2-3-1 if you want to consider both Flo and Anibal together as defensive midfielders and have Wondo drop into a midfield spot. For now, at least from the opening whistle, the classic and effective 4-4-2 is the way they’ll go.

A last thought on this particular line-up relates to the changing ways MLS GMs are constructing their rosters. With the influx of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) in previous years, it makes it easy to stock up on talented International Players. Moving forward, that trend will continue, as MLS now allows clubs to spend even more TAM, called discretionary TAM, at the clubs’ expense. What is the result this year? Well, my projected Starting XI is comprised of seven players that were signed from overseas. American born youngsters like Thompson and Yueill will potentially be consistent substitutes, but the Earthquakes line-up has tipped to favor the internationals.

“Quakes Questions” is an occasional series that will focus on the topics you, our readers, are looking to learn more about. Ask me, @robertjonas on Twitter, anything that is on your mind, or visit the Center Line Soccer Facebook page and leave a question there. Be sure to tag your message with #QuakesQuestions, and I’ll answer as many of your questions as I can. Thanks, everyone!