For the second successive week, San Jose Earthquakes head coach Mikael Stahre has tinkered with his lineup and formation in the team’s training sessions. The Major League Soccer newcomer sees some positives from his squad over the season’s first four games, but he has suggested that changes are coming.
Last weekend against the Philadelphia Union, the changes included handing Joel Qwiberg his first MLS start at left back, and the Swedish defender had a mediocre performance. “The first 25 minutes against Philadelphia was a disaster,” Stahre said this week at training. “We hardly crossed the halfway line.”
It wasn’t a full condemnation of Qwiberg — the entire defense, including goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell — were complicit in letting the Union control the early stages of the game.
“I need to find the open passes and make the simple plays simple,” Tarbell said. “We’re getting more organized in the back to help all of us in the back so that we can play out easily. We are working on that every week.”
The Earthquakes took the lead against the run of play when Magnus Eriksson scored his first MLS goal on a sublime feed from forward Danny Hoesen. It was an encouraging offensive foray from the Quakes on a night that they rarely possessed the ball in the attacking third, something Stahre wants to see more of in Saturday’s game against the Houston Dynamo.
“We will analyze this game in the proper way,” Stahre said. “The most important thing for us to do is handle the building up. When we cross the halfway line and we can face the opponent’s goal, we are very, very good.”
And therein lies the rub: San Jose has scored seven goals in four games, but they’ve conceded eight. It doesn’t take a math expert to recognize that that represents an unsustainable goal differential.
Against Philly in the second half, Stahre made some adjustments to the formation, dropping Florian Jungwirth back into the centerback line and slotting Eriksson more in a defensive midfielder role. The plan was to gain possession in the defensive half and then hit the Union on the counterattack. It worked with nominal success early in the stanza, but Philadelphia adjusted and the Quakes were pinned down, giving up the equalizer to Alejandro Bedoya soon after.
“We adjusted good in the shape for the second half, but it wasn’t good enough to transfer the ball and transfer our attacks into dangerous opportunities,” Eriksson said. “We isolated Danny and Wondo pretty much by themselves up there. It was tough for them, and it was a lot of running for us in midfield. Defensively we were okay in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.”
The Quakes return home to Avaya Stadium to face the Dynamo this Saturday, and they’ll be looking to reverse a three game winless streak. Houston plays a style that is very similar to San Jose’s first opponent of the season, Minnesota United, and the Earthquakes were able to effectively dictate the tempo of that game in building a 3-0 lead. They took the foot off the gas and conceded two late goals, but the 3-2 result represents their only win of the young season. Lessons learned from that performance will go a long way towards determining how Stahre set’s up the team for the Dynamo.
“When we look at the first four games, we have made some small, small changes so far,” Stahre said. “Now, the coaching staff knows the players more, we know MLS more, we know the opponents more, and we can expect to play hard games every weekend. Of course, I am open to change formations. I’m open to change some players, and I think that’s necessary to win games. It’s necessary also to keep the team warm and also keep up the energy level. But the most important thing is to find ways to win the next game.”
Possible adjustments include going with a three-man back line, though that could be complicated by the suspension of centerback Harold Cummings for a late ejection against the Union. Yeferson Quintana is likely to be paired with Francois Affolter, but Jungwirth could sit deep and help the central defenders. Nick Lima is a lock to play as a full back, whether on his regular right side or possibly on the left to deal with Dynamo attacker Alberth Elis.
“We have to limit them from getting in behind the defense and catching us on the counter when we get numbers forward and get caught in transition, especially on the wings,” Lima said. “In dealing with Elis, we have played him in the past and he’s created problems. Hopefully, I get to be on his side and I can get in his ear a little bit. I did that last year, and it was fun. Getting under his skin is what I want to do. Play that role, it’s chippy and scrappy, and make sure he doesn’t do much in the game. I’m given that role, and I have to go out there and do it.”
If Lima plays on the left, Jungwirth could shift to the right side full back, a position he played during his time in Germany. It would be a radical departure to the way Jungwirth has been used this season and last — Stahre made it clear he sees the German as a true number six defensive midfielder — but it might get the best available defenders on the team on the field together.
In midfield, that would require either Anibal Godoy — more a box to box player — or Fatai Alashe — a favorite substitute for Stahre so far this season — to take Jungwirth’s place in front of the centerbacks. It would be a bit of a gamble, but that is why Stahre has tried so many different combinations of players in training last week and this.
The big question surrounding Stahre’s changes to the lineup and formation is whether the makeup of the attacking four is under consideration. Vako, Eriksson, Hoesen, and Chris Wondolowski have shown a good chemistry at times this season — as long as they are provided the ball from the Quakes defense. Six of the team’s seven goals and assists come courtesy of the group. It’s hard to argue with their collective play.
The temptation is to single out Wondolowski as a candidate to drop to the bench. After all, he is the oldest player on the field for the Quakes, and his ability to connect within the offensive flow has been suspect at times this season. But Wondo is still a unifying influence in the squad, and targeting him as responsible for San Jose winless streak is myopic.
Stahre could try to get more attacking midfielders on the field by introducing Jahmir Hyka — still without an appearance this season — which could necessitate moving the Quakes captain out of the lineup. Alternatively, the more active Quincy Amarikwa could get a longer look, or a possession oriented central midfielder like Jackson Yueill could earn a start. The coaching staff has a lot to work with right now, especially with everyone but Cummings healthy and available for selection.
“It’s hard for the coach right for the moment,” Stahre said. “We have many good players and all of them are fit. In soccer, you can expect to have some players injured, and we are, knock on wood, very happy with our situation for the moment. It’s up to the coaching staff and the players to find a way so that we can play our game and use our qualities.”
As is Stahre’s style, any modifications to the lineup against Houston won’t involve wholesale changes. He has some locks to start the game within the squad, so it will be more about building in the complementary pieces. The Dynamo are one of the worst road teams in MLS, and the Earthquakes will want to take advantage of a weaker opponent and earn all three points at Avaya Stadium.
“We have worked on different formations, so we will see what’s going to be best on Saturday,” Eriksson said. “We have a great squad and a good number of great players, so whatever fits the formation and the team is important. It is up to Mikael to come up with the best lineup that is going to win the game for us this Saturday.”
When: April 14, 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Ayaya Stadium, San Jose, Calif.
Broadcast: NBC Sports California Plus, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: ESPN+, MLS Live