It's been very rough going for the San Jose Earthquakes in the month of September, and things only got worse on Wednesday night with their fourth blowout loss of the month — a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Colorado Rapids.
Matias Almeyda's men were picked apart once again by the Rapids, much as they were by LAFC (5-1 on Sept. 2), Seattle (7-1 on Sept. 10), and Portland (6-1 on Sept. 19). Even with a few creditable draws thrown in that busy slate, the slew of lopsided results lays bare the fact that the team that surprised so many over the last year-and-a-half has some serious issues.
Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski, who has been with the team through it all, summed it up as a question of mentality, likening his team to a puppy that gets hit across the nose with a newspaper for misbehaving, then starts to become afraid of the newspaper.
“I think that right now we’re mentally weak,” Wondolowski said after Wednesday's loss. “I think that once something goes wrong we’re expecting more things to go wrong.”
Almeyda went with a more direct analogy in agreeing with his captain, likening what he saw from his team on Wednesday to the one he saw when he took over the team following the 2018 season.
“We have a group that has experienced these times before,” the Argentine coach said. “For a long time we changed that mentality, today we went back to having that mentality, with great difficulty.”
Almeyda also admitted the road after Colorado wouldn't get any easier either, saying, “I try to be real and objective in my life. There are 10 games left and they’re going to be as difficult as these games. We’re not going to change in three days and have the magic wand to touch the players.”
When asked about whether the team's mental fragility depend on him or the players, Almeyda argued that it was down to everyone, from the players and himself to the coaching staff and general manager, but warned against playing the blame game.
“In difficult times, human beings often show the great misery they have within and they start to look for who to blame,” Almeyda said. “This is football, it’s a team sport. The team isn’t just the most well-known players or just the XI that steps onto field. Football deserves respect, and the people who work within football deserve respect.”
Highlights: Colorado 5, San Jose 0
HIGHLIGHTS: Colorado Rapids vs. San Jose Earthquakes | September 23, 2020
Though mentality and desire (or lack thereof) were the buzzwords for both Wondolowski and Almeyda throughout their postgame remarks, both of them highlighted other issues with the team. On the tactical side Wondolowski lamented the team's inability to “connect three passes” in the build-up, not even giving them a chance to possess the ball and/or win it back in the opposition third, which in turn heaps more pressure on the team defensively.
Almeyda, meanwhile, highlighted two other realities he says he and the team face: their thin roster, and a particularly unforgiving schedule, even by 2020 standards.
“There’s reality with thinner rosters, we suffer in terms of soccer, physically because there are many injuries,” Almeyda said. “And I can assure you because I played football, it’s impossible to recover for three days and play for points in 90 minutes. Those who have deeper squads can change their starting XI and play with fewer youngsters. We’re playing youngsters at this time and that gives me sadness.”
And though all MLS teams have had to deal with the the reality of a hectic, compacted schedule in this pandemic-altered season, the Earthquakes' September run has indeed been particularly grueling. They did not resume play after the MLS is Back Tournament until August 29, a full week after most other MLS teams, and have played two games per week from that point on for a total of eight games in the last 26 days, or a game every 3.25 days.
“This is really a moment that I have never experienced before,” Almeyda said. “I have some of the blame for not finding the way, but there is something very real. We’re the only team that’s played every three days, this team — I’ve said this many times before, not just tonight — but if we don’t train they can’t correct.”
Even though Almeyda hasn't quite been able to find the way for his team through this unusual and deflating run of games — despite a few changes in strategy, he acknowledged — there is little thought of a serious change to his unique way of doing things and nor should there be, argued Wondolowski.
“We’ve had our identity, and we need to stay the course,” MLS's all-time leading goalscorer said. “We have to continue to do the things to be who are and be successful. We know what it takes. Just because it’s not working right now you can’t just throw in the towel, you can’t just change everything, scratch a year-and-a-half of we’ve been doing.
“We’ve been doing it absolutely wrong, and I think that’s down to the personnel. I think we’re not implementing it right, we’re not understanding, we’re not seeing it, and correcting it as well on the field. I know philosophy that we had, it’s something that is simple at times.
“A lot of it can be done by desire alone and that’s a big thing that’s missing right now.”