SAN JOSE, Calif. — The road was not a pleasant place to be for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2017. Over the course of the season, the Quakes managed a measly 3-12-2 record and -28 goal differential away from San Jose. Despite the road woes, they still qualified for the postseason, but that ended after one game, a 5-0 shellacking at the Vancouver Whitecaps.
San Jose is hoping for better in 2018.
The Quakes brought in a new head coach this offseason in Mikael Stahre. He’s managed teams in his native Sweden, as well as Greece and China, so he knows the rigors of the road. Stahre, 42, has an unblemished record through preseason and the MLS opener, a 3-2 win against Minnesota United.
“It’s always hard to play on the road, no matter whether it’s in Sweden, in China, in the U.S., or in Japan or Brazil,” Stahre told Center Line Soccer, “but of course we have to improve.”
San Jose plays its first away game of 2018 this weekend when the team faces Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park, kick-off at 5:30 p.m. Pacific time. The Quakes last visit to KC was for a U.S. Open Cup semifinal last August, a game Sporting won on penalty kicks. Goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell played heroically in the loss, a performance that catapulted him to starting role in MLS, and he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him Saturday night.
“Their front four is really dynamic,” Tarbell said to Center Line Soccer. “They are really quick in transition and they build effectively out of the back, so they’ll come at us from all fronts, with Zusi getting forward and getting good crosses off. We need to keep the ball away from their front four.”
Sporting KC won a thrilling 4-3 game against the Chicago Fire a week ago, and their attacking corps of Khiry Shelton, Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi, and Felipe Gutierrez looked dangerous at times. Gutierrez, a Chilean national team midfielder, was exceptional in the win, scoring two goals and earning second-place in the MLS Player-of-the-week voting.
But Kansas City’s play is defined by their defense, something long-time head coach Peter Vermes has demanded of his squad for many seasons. In 2017, Sporting was especially stingy, allowing only 29 goals in 34 games, by far the best goals against total in the league. This season, Vermes’ team has already shipped five goals in two games, but that statistic is a bit deceiving, Stahre believes, and one that is likely to course correct through the season.
“The coach is doing a really good job over there,” Stahre said of his counterpart in KC. “He’s worked there for many years, and they have a clear plan. They are a pressing team that wants to conquer the ball really high, almost like a full-court press. And also they have a good organization in the defense for sure. All teams have strong points and weak points, and it’s up to us to try to find the weak points and avoid or handle the strong ones.”
The Quakes will counter with their own potent offense, which tore apart the Loons in the season opener. Danny Hoesen and Valeri Qazashvili were potent in front of goal for San Jose, and newcomer Magnus Eriksson was a handful on the right wing. Chris Wondolowski, who has scored eight goals in 15 regular season appearances against Kansas City, is also heating up.
Over the past two seasons, including last summer’s Open Cup victory, Sporting is 3-1-2 against the Quakes, unbeaten in the last five games. San Jose will need to have a complete game strategy to handle Kansas City on Saturday, and unlike against Minnesota, a clearly weaker opponent, the team can’t lose focus and allow easy goals.
In their season opener, with the centerback duo of Harold Cummings and Yeferson Quintana, the Quakes did not allow a goal. Tarbell is hoping the defensive line, including fullbacks Shea Salinas and Nick Lima, will continue to gel and prevent Kansas City from dictating play.
“They have been doing great,” Tarbell said. “We had a good preseason, and I am excited to get into the heart of the season with them. They both worked really hard to get ready, and I am looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
San Jose Earthquakes vs Sporting Kansas City starting lineup
Andrew Tarbell; Shea Salinas, Harold Cummings, Yeferson Quintana, Nick Lima; Valeri Qazashvili, Anibal Godoy, Florian Jungwirth, Magnus Eriksson; Chris Wondolowski, Danny Hoesen.
Who: Sporting Kansas City
Where: Children’s Mercy Park
When: Kick-off is 7:30 p.m. local time (5:30 p.m. Pacific)
Viewing Party: The Alameda Floodcraft Brewing Company at Whole Foods Market.
TV: NBC Sports Bay Area Plus
Streaming: MLS Live