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Can San Jose Earthquakes become tournament specialists in Orlando?

Matias Almeyda’s reputation precedes him.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes Training Handout Photo-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As the San Jose Earthquakes inch closer to their scheduled return to action, July 10 against the Seattle Sounders in the MLS is Back Tournament, we’re going to ask 10 questions in the lead-up to get ready for the return.

First up: Can the Quakes become tournament specialists in Orlando?

On the surface, effectively asking if San Jose can win the tournament sounds a bit fanciful, except for two factors — we have no idea how any of these teams will look after four months off, in a pandemic, and in a short tournament, and also, Matias Almeyda’s reputation as a tournament specialist is stoking some hype fires around the Quakes.

On the first count, we can’t really project much with any confidence. Maybe the Earthquakes will win every game, maybe they’ll lose them all — you could literally talk yourself into the same for all teams. We’ve never seen anything like this before in MLS history. The uncertainty is hanging over everything and it’s impossible to really predict properly.

But, we can break down why Almeyda’s reputation is giving the Quakes a bettor’s chance in the reckoning heading in.

Most notably, Almeyda won four tournaments as manager of Chivas de Guadalajara: Two Copa MXs, one Liga MX, and one Concacaf Champions League.

While Chivas are one of the most popular teams in the Americas and theoretically have tons of money to spend (albeit only on domestic talent, per their self-imposed rule of only fielding Mexican players), their track record of futility was becoming clear — their last title came in 2006, and the past 20 years have been filled with more sadness than anything, aside from Almeyda’s tenure.

So it’s not a stretch to say Almeyda can take a team down on its luck and whip them up into title winners, because he’s done it. He did it another time, with River Plate after their relegation in Argentina. The man can motivate, that’s for sure.

And the reps built up in Mexico, with Copa MX a tournament pretty similar to the MLS is Back Tournament, of a group stage and then knockouts, the all-out Liguilla playoffs of Liga MX and high pressure of CCL meaning there’s no margin for error, means Almeyda’s success there wasn’t a one-time fluke — it happened again and again.

Now, with San Jose the transformation has not been immediate. The Quakes clearly improved last year, but not enough to close the talent gap all the way, as they fell just short of the playoffs. The only other knockout tournament they played in, the U.S. Open Cup, ended two games in, San Jose losing to LAFC in the round of 16 after beating Sacramento Republic.

But we know Almeyda has a good track record elsewhere, his high-octane style and man-marking system is unique in MLS and if the Quakes don’t get worn out themselves, will pay off as opponents tire, and it’s a sprint, not a marathon. Punch in a few goals, shut up shop in the back, and just run, run, run through seven games and that’s the tournament.

Can they do it? Again, we’ll see. I think one distinction between Chivas and San Jose is that Chivas’ squad was more competitive overall relative to the competition than the Quakes at this point. At the same time, while the Earthquakes’ changes have been incremental, the likes of Oswaldo Alanis and Carlos Fierro have won silverware at Chivas with Almeyda, and maybe a few guys popping off and having star turns will transform the group completely.

It’s a big unknown, but if the Quakes get out of their group, then it’s an open field the rest of the way. Can they put together a good showing in an unprecedented short tournament for MLS? It will be fascinating to find out.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.