SAN JOSE, Calif. – By no means is the San Jose Earthquakes most expensive player a boxer, but during a March 30 match against LAFC, he experienced the soccer equivalent of his coach throwing in the towel. Vako was benched at halftime and would not start another game for two months.
“I’ve tried [to be respectful] to a group that trains [hard], that [shows] willingness, but that is obviously not fulfilling our expectations and at a soccer level, are completely negative,” Matias Almeyda said after the 5-0 loss to LAFC.
Vako had the opportunities to throw his blows. He missed. The first four games of the 2019 season weren’t enough for the 26-year-old to impress Almeyda and his coaching staff. Never recognized for his defensive work rate, the Georgian mainly struggled to track back and defend in Almeyda’s man-to-man marking scheme.
He was wounded and battered, reaching a low for his career. But it was also the beginning of a rebirth, a sign of new life. The season was early, Vako was arguably the team’s most technical player and the chances of him starting again sometime during the season were higher than finding a new home.
He began working in silence, trying to desperately prepare for his next audition in front of Almeyda.
“I said like, ‘Keep digging, put your nose down, and just do whatever the coach wants because the coach is always right.’ He did it,” defender Guram Kashia recalls telling Vako during those “tough” weeks when they both found themselves with limited activity. “He put a lot of effort outside [the field]. You cannot see him, but I see him everyday and he works extra every afternoon. He goes to the gym, hits the gym. He calls me [asking what he can do], he calls the fitness coaches here [asking], ‘What can I do to gain more muscle and lose more fat?’ He asks the right questions.”
Best friends, neighbors, ride-sharing partners and nonetheless teammates, no one had a closer seat to the attacker’s metamorphosis than Kashia. Although he suggests his fellow Georgian can improve on the tactical side of the game, Vako’s impressive form is undeniable, with six goals and two assists across his last eight games.
"I'm scared that we'll lose him because he's doing really good,” Kashia said. “He has all the attention from other clubs. But I hope that he will stay long here and he will help the team.”
The Quakes, on a 9-2-2 run, are unrecognizable compared to the team they were in March, and the No. 11 shirt happens to be the fulcrum of their attack. San Jose needs Vako as much as Vako needs San Jose.
"Vako is at a level that I expected, [but] that when I got here, I couldn't find,” coach Almeyda told MLSsoccer.com about the attacker. “But through practices and conversations, he found out that the only way he can play for me is if he plays like this."
The change in approach caused his teammates to take notice, too.
“Almeyda just spoke a lot with him, told him what he needed to improve, and now you see Vako with a smile on his face,” San Jose forward Danny Hoesen said.
Now, as Vako looks to make it four straight games with a goal, perhaps there’s no better analogy for him than a boxer. He was down and came back stronger, fighting to prove himself.
The attacker has quite the motivator in his corner, too.
“Because Almeyda knows how to talk with the players, he knows exactly what you need to do on the pitch,” Vako said. “I’m trying to listen to him. That’s it."