The San Jose Earthquakes 2018 season may have ended in a loss, but overall it was a positive step for a team that has lacked direction the last several seasons. Matias Almeyda came into San Jose and installed a South American style system that had the Quakes players running full-speed at the opposition for 90 minutes.
They scored more goals and allowed less this season than in 2018 and emerged as a legitimate playoff contender.
Some called Almeyda’s system unorthodox because they didn’t understand it. Some called it that because it had just chewed up their favorite team and spit them out, leaving a battered and soggy mess on the ground.
Whatever you thought of it, one thing was sure. It was the most successful system the Quakes had run in a while. For years the Quakes seemed to approach matchdays they way you and your buddies might approach a Sunday league football match. Frantically running around the pitch while trying to get the ball to the one guy on your team that actually has some athleticism.
And just like Sunday league, sometimes it worked, and you went home slightly happier than when you arrived. For the San Jose Earthquakes, it has worked 155 times, but relying on Chris Wondolowski to continue to be a magnificent poacher is asking too much of the grizzled vet. The Quakes needed something different.
Enter Argentinian manager Matias Almeyda.
When the Quakes announced the signing of Matias Almeyda in late 2018, the western soccer world was shocked. Not only had MLS signed one of the rising stars of the managerial world, but he was going to a team that some think has a reputation for being on the frugal side. It was indeed a coup for the club from Northern California. Almeyda was slowly building his reputation as a manager that restores teams to former glory, and he had chosen the Earthquakes as his next project.
The first sign that this was going to be a different team than before was the grueling two-week training session the team endured in early 2019. As soon as the Quakes were done in Mexico, the team immediately flew to Nevada to take on their USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC. The players went from sunny Cancun, where the temperature rarely falls below 70 degrees to Reno, which is at 4,500 feet in elevation and was experiencing a late-season blizzard at the time of their match.
The grueling offseason regiment was not the only factor in the Quake’s success in the 2019 season. General Manager Jesse Fioranelli also made some crucial signings that helped elevate the Quakes gameplay.
Fioranelli’s first move was to sign midfielder Judson from Tombense of Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro. The 26-year-old took several months to find his comfort zone in MLS, but once he settled in, he was one of the Quake’s best defensive midfield options. His timely tackles broke up many dangerous runs, and he worked well with Florian Yungwirth, another player that had a great season under Almeyda.
The Almeyda signing aside, Fioranelli’s next move was his most important signing of the offseason. Cristian Espinoza was a 23-year-old midfielder who was struggling for minutes in both Argentina and Spain. He is signed to Villareal from Spain’s La Liga but spent 2018 with Boca Juniors in the Superliga Argentina.
Espinoza has been the grease in Matias Almeyda’s system. He keeps everything in place and running smoothly. The Quakes were winless in matches that didn’t feature Espinoza, and his 13 assists led the team. That is the first time a Quakes player reached that number since Marvin Chavez did it in the magical 2012 season. Not only was Espinoza a leader on the Quakes, but he was also third in the league in overall successful dribbles (76) and eighth in the league in key passes per game (2.8).
The new signings were valuable additions, but to Almeyda’s credit, he took most of the same roster from the 2018 season and got more out of those players. And that group was a part of the worst season in Quakes history. One holdover from the 2018 season that seemed to benefit from Almeyda’s style was Swedish midfielder, Magnus Eriksson.
Eriksson joined the Quakes in 2018 from Swedish club Djurgardens IF and became an instant mainstay in the lineup. He was used mostly in the right-wing role under then-manager Mikael Stahre and had a decent season in that role tallying six goals and three assists in 32 matches. But still, it seemed that there was a better place for him on the pitch.
Almeyda used him in a more central-mid position, and Eriksson excelled in 2019. Earlier in the article, I mentioned that Espinoza was eighth in the league in key passes. The only other Earthquake that had more key passes per match was Eriksson, whose 3.2 per game was good enough for third-best in the league. His 102 chances created also put him at third place in MLS behind New England Revolution’s Carles Gil(107), and Portland’s Diego Valeri(124).
Now that the offseason drama of whether Almeyda would stick around San Jose for another season or try his luck back in Mexico is finally over, we can focus on next season. 2020 will start with something the Quakes have not had on the national level, expectations.
This team transformed from one of the worst teams in the league into a one that opposing squads dread to see on the schedule. The fans in the Bay Area are also expecting better results after a six-game losing streak cost the Quakes a playoff spot. This team was better this season than last, but next year they need to be betterer. But how can they accomplish this?
The current collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league ends on January 30, 2020. If the two groups can come to a quick agreement and get a new contract signed, the Quakes front office may have a bigger budget to work with. Signing Cristian Espinoza to a permanent deal should be the priority, but the squad still needs reinforcement if they plan on being in next season’s playoff tournament.
The fans expect a playoff team next season, it is now up to Fioranelli and Almeyda to find the right players to get them there.