The long MLS offseason is finally coming to a close this weekend, and with it come a fresh set of expectations from supporters. A lot of teams broke signing records to bring in players that they hope will help them compete with the more free-spending teams in the ever-changing MLS landscape. Others, like the San Jose Earthquakes, decided to keep most of their roster intact, hoping the chemistry between longtime teammates will be the key driver to their success.
I think this was a smart move and will lead to the Quakes going back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Here is why I believe that will happen in 2020.
In Almeyda We Trust
The questions over Matias Almeyda’s future in San Jose started swirling around the rumor mill before the 2019 season ended. The Argentinian did in Northern California what he has become known for, take a struggling team with a rich history and turn around their fortunes.
Quakes fans were not unsettled for long.
The answers came days after the Quakes were eliminated from playoff contention on Decision Day in Portland. Matias Almeyda held a press conference stating his intentions of staying in San Jose for the full term of his contract. With that statement, the focus turned towards 2020.
Almeyda is known for an aggressive man-marking style that was unique to MLS and required players with above-average stamina. To get his new team into shape, Almeyda took the team through a grueling two-week training camp in Cancun that consisted of double days in the hot Mexican sun. As soon as that was over, they immediately flew to Reno to face their USL affiliate, who play their matches at an elevation of 4,500 feet.
The first month of the experiment was a disaster. The Quakes went winless in their first four matches while being outscored 14-2. Almeyda made some adjustments, and the team chemistry improved to the point that for the next four months, the team only lost three matches. By the end of the season, the roster was out of gas, and the system struggled to create goals. The Quakes ended the 2019 season, losing their final six matches. They barely missed out on a playoff spot by losing to the Portland Timbers in the last game of the season.
Last summer, this roster showed that it was capable of playing with, and beating, any team in the league. The players’ bodies, however, needed better endurance to keep up in the long MLS season. Another grueling offseason in Cancun with players that know what to expect will have the Quakes ready from week one and ready to run and play into October.
More maturity on the roster
The Quakes come into the 2020 MLS season as one of the younger teams in the league. 17 of the 29 players currently on the senior roster are 25 years old or younger, but several vital contributors are now ready to step up to push the team across the playoff line.
Tommy Thompson is now 24 years old and going into his second season as a defensive player. Last season he broke the 2,000 minute mark for the first time in his career but struggled at times in his new role. Even though Almeyda had him playing right back, he was able to score two goals last season, which was a career-high for Thompson. His crafty footwork and improved defensive skills should help the Quakes offense be quicker on the counter-attack.
Cristian Espinoza turns 25 on April 3rd and is another player that is looking to improve upon his eye-opening 2019 campaign. He was so critical to the Quakes performance last season that they did not win any match in which Espinoza did not play. He came to San Jose on a one-year loan from Villarreal but quickly showed the front office that they needed to find a way to sign him on a permanent transfer.
Since being signed by the La Liga side in 2015, Espinoza was loaned to four different teams while not featuring once for the team that owned his contract. The constant uncertainty and moving started taking a mental toll on the young Argentinian, and he was looking for a fresh start. Now that he has a team where he is guaranteed playing time, he can focus on helping the Quakes reach the playoffs.
Another young player that is looking to make a leap in their career is Jackson Yueill, who turns 23 on March 19th. The young defensive midfielder is not only looking to make a splash in MLS but also on the national team level, where he has featured multiple times for head coach Gregg Berhalter. In 2019 he played more minutes, scored more goals, and racked up more assists than any other time in his young career. I wouldn’t go as far as describing him the potential MLS version of Andrea Pirlo, as some others have said, but he is the Quakes player with the highest potential at this point in his career.
How much better did the Western Conference get?
This offseason, the news was dominated by record-breaking transfers from various teams around the league. The biggest acquisition of the offseason in the West was LA Galaxy signing Mexican international Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Joining him out West is fellow international Alan Pulido, who signed to Sporting Kansas City from Chivas de Guadalajara.
The Quakes’ most significant signing was the permanent acquisition of Espinoza. While that was a crucial signing and reports, say it was a record deal for San Jose it is what not what many fans were expecting. But it may be enough to push the Quakes into the playoffs.
Other playoff teams like Portland made acquisitions to keep themselves in the hunt after losing some key players, but there is no guarantee that those additions will get used to the MLS style of soccer in their first season. Nashville SC is set to join the league and has made some solid signings for a first-year club, but they should be nowhere near the playoff hunt as the season goes on.
The Quakes come into their second season with a proven manager and a roster that has played together and had success on the pitch. For these reasons the San Jose Earthquakes will take part in the 2020 MLS Playoff tournament.