As the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
The San Jose Earthquakes started strong in 2021, then slumped thereafter. In previous years they started slow then gained momentum.
What was a common thread, though, was the streakiness. Three wins from their first four games gave way to a run of 11 games without a win, which overlapped with a 10-game unbeaten run. Hot and cold, but more of the cold was poured into the bucket of their season and they finished well below the playoff line, missing the playoffs for the seventh time in nine seasons. They haven't won a playoff round since 2010.
This season was year No. 3 under head coach Matias Almeyda. The roster he inherited had been almost entirely turned over.
With a front office vacancy and another playoff-less season, the Quakes are at a crossroads heading to 2022 with a number of big questions – and big opportunities – ahead of them.
... or is he already in place?
San Jose parted ways with general manager Jesse Fioranelli at the end of July. COO Jared Shawlee was direct in saying the club wanted a new GM in place before the end of 2021, to give them plenty of time to internally assess the squad before the season ended. San Jose currently have one game left and are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. There is no GM hired.
Unless, as can be realistically deduced, technical director and acting chief soccer officer Chris Leitch takes the helm. The 42-year-old has been with the organization since 2009, spending his last few years as a player, before transitioning to coaching and being named technical director in 2015.
Leitch was given free rein at the end of the Secondary Transfer Window, as evident by a blockbuster trade for Jeremy Ebobisse that involved the club sending $1.167 in GAM to Portland. They also traded Florian Jungwirth to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
"I can’t say enough personally about Chris," Shawlee said on July 27. "He’s proven it with us, both in the academy and with Reno. He has all the respect in the world from everyone in the organization."
Head coach Matias Almeyda has one year left on his contract. He is seemingly in the news twice a year like clockwork as a reported target for *insert any big Liga MX club here." Would a new GM like to bring in their own head coach? Or will they want Almeyda back? Does Almeyda want to stay or does he want a new challenge?
Should the Quakes want him to stay? Almeyda took over ahead of the 2019 season. They finished 8th in the West that season and missed the playoffs. They made the playoffs last year (finishing in eighth with a -16 goal difference in an expanded playoff format). They missed the playoffs again this year, sitting in 10th with a -8 GD. In three years, Almeyda's Quakes have a -27 GD.
The club didn't have a great track record of signings, but the overwhelming majority of players acquired had played for Almeyda at previous clubs. He clearly had a strong say in player acquisition. Whoever's fault that be, whether Fioraneilli or Almeyda, it hasn't panned out.
“We believe Matias is one of the top coaches in the league, he has the support of the club," Shawlee said in July.
Almeyda has had plenty of success in Argentina and Mexico. He has dialed back his man-marking defensive scheme a bit this year in an effort to adapt to the rigors of MLS. Fixture congestion being compounded by a pandemic-delayed season forced his hand, too.
This all depends on the first two questions, of course. Particularly so the second. Almeyda's game model and core principles are very specific.
In a vacuum, though, there is room for major moves. The Quakes have an open DP spot (alongside Cristian Espinoza and Eduardo "Chofis" Lopez) and are using one U22 Initiative slot, on Marcos Lopez. There's plenty of flexibility, plus there have been reports linking Chofis with a move back to Mexico and he's only on loan from Chivas. The Quakes have an option to extend the loan a further six months or purchase him outright after the year. Club and league legend Chris Wondolowski planned to retire after last season but reconsidered. I'm convinced that dude can give you five goals off the bench a season until he's 45, but it seems more likely than not he hangs 'em up after this year.
There could be some top-end change to come this winter around PayPal Park.
San Jose have some semblance of a core. Jackson Yueill and Judson are a balanced and formidable midfield duo, with Eric Remedi making it a solid trio or an overqualified second-choice in a 4-2-3-1. Cade Cowell leveled up from promising youngster to MLS contributor. His talent and pedigree suggest he seems to have plenty of more levels to hit, as he only turned 18 in mid-October. Ebobisse has been a strong addition, while Benji Kikanovic has come on strong of late, with four goals and an assist in just under 800 minutes.
There are plenty of pieces to work with on the roster. A jump over the playoff line isn't far away.