Win, lose, draw, tragedy or triumph, euphoria or misery: No matter what’s happening with the San Jose Earthquakes, they have become one of the most addictively watchable commodities in MLS during Matias “Pelado” Almeyda’s tenure.
The Quakes’ world turned again in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning, Cristian Espinoza and Jackson Yueill pulling this very entertaining rabbit out of the hat in injury time to beat their heretofore bogey club, LAFC, in the latest made-for-TV episode of the Pelado Chronicles. And that, dear readers, is why I'm writing about them here yet again instead of whichever team you're more interested in.
Look at those delirious celebrations! A far sight from the lifeless, luckless gang that got thrashed 5-1, 7-1, 6-1 and 5-0 earlier this month, eh? And fair play to them — this looked like a 10,000-pound anchor being removed from their collective shoulders. Most any of us would feel similar jubilation, and the culture Almeyda builds in his teams values spirit and emotional openness so, so highly.
It may sound lurid to declare that this latest plot twist saved Almeyda’s job, though I don’t think that’s far off, because at the very least the victory — their first since the MLS is Back Tournament and the end of a miserable eight-game winless skid — salvaged the key storyline that powers his project in San Jose.
There’s an alchemy to what the Quakes have sought from their charming Argentinian coach, and to what he has promised them in turn. Almeyda’s personality is offbeat, his tactics idiosyncratic, his motivational abilities exceptional. He was hired specifically to bring that uniqueness to a team that for most of the past decade has struggled to even meet this league’s concept of average, qualifying for the postseason only once since their 2012 Supporters’ Shield run and finishing dead last in MLS the season before he arrived. Nor were they particularly ambitious or exciting for much of that period, spending relatively little compared to the rising MLS norm even as they finally moved into their own lovely soccer-specific stadium.
Being bad is one thing; being bad and boring is quite another.
It’s hard to ever imagine an Almeyda side being boring. He and his staff live and breathe this beautiful game with every waking moment and seem to work hard to inculcate that in their players. Over the past few months, however, it hasn’t been entirely clear that everyone on the roster was fully bought in.
Even the most egregious “mental weakness” doesn’t fully account for the kind of half-assed tracking and recovery runs that allowed Western Conference foes to run up baseball scores on them in September. And dedicated Quakes observers have noted some questionable body language not only on goals conceded, but even in terms of substitutions and intra-team interactions.
On Sunday night we saw evidence that Pelado has a critical mass of believers who still want to play for him. While that may not be enough to sneak them into the MLS Cup Playoffs, it does give management something to hang their coat on, a sign that the locker room hasn’t been lost and Almeyda’s message not completely tuned out. Even the most foundational, long-range rebuilding project can only withstand so many embarrassing results before the environment around the club grows toxic.
“We were missing a little trust in one another and ourselves,” said Yueill postgame. “I think in the past couple games we were losing confidence in bad moments and let the game slip away from us. Tonight, our one focus was just believe in our teammates and believe in ourselves.”
Now it’s Almeyda’s turn to show some faith — specifically, in the players who are working hardest and producing the most, who are saving his proverbial bacon. He’s been extremely loyal to some of the ones he knows best and in some cases brought to San Jose, yet some of them simply haven’t done the business, and that has to be reflected in the balance of minutes doled out.
As inspiring as his career’s journey has been, Daniel Vega just hasn’t been up to the job in goal. Yes, his back line has exposed him repeatedly but his 37 goals conceded is far and away the most in MLS. His saves percentage is one of the worst among regular starters. A breathtaking goals-against average of 3.08 is perhaps the gaudiest stat you’ll find in MLS this year.
JT Marcinkowski stepped in last night, making only his second start of the season, and just like his first he was excellent and allowed just one goal in a man-of-the-match display. He has to keep the job, for the next few weeks at least. Teen homegrown phenom Cade Cowell makes things happen every time he steps on the pitch, including Sunday; as carefully as the Quakes may wish to handle his development, he’s good enough, therefore he’s old enough.
Tanner Beason may be a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who occasionally gets handed a tough lesson in the run of play but he’s been about as good as (and occasionally better than) Oswaldo Alanis and Guram Kashia, the internationals ahead of him on the center back depth chart. Marcos Lopez didn’t start a match this season until this month, but the left back job should be his until someone better wrestles it away.
That’s just a sample. It remains to be seen whether San Jose will invest more heavily in their squad this winter, when several contracts clear the books and open up room for a potentially more sweeping overhaul. But in the meantime, Almeyda is learning about who deserves more of his trust, and who doesn’t. It’s his job to reflect that in his selections.