The goals this year for the Earthquakes in head coach Luchi Gonzalez’s first season:
- Make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
- Develop the young guys.
- Increase attendance.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
LuchiBall wasn’t exactly an instant, unstoppable success – they finished ninth in a 14-team conference, after all. But they won as much as they lost and made themselves hard to beat, which was something the Quakes hadn’t been for more than a decade. (You could argue that most of the “hard to beat” had more to do with new goalkeeper Daniel than it did with anything Luchi implemented, but a win’s a win and a draw’s a draw and they had just enough of both, so I’m giving him some credit).
Overall it was successful enough, and the fans noticed. By my count attendance was up 20% year-over-year, and just anecdotally, I think that translated to a better product on TV. You could really feel the crowd in the biggest moments, which I don’t think was the case in 2022.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, San Jose missed on that second bullet point, as basically nobody under the age of 25 did anything of note (except disappoint, but we’ll get to that later).
For a team that seemed pretty committed to becoming the West Coast answer to FC Dallas or the Philadelphia Union, it was kind of shocking to see. By midseason, it had become clear this team would go only as far as Daniel, Cristian Espinoza and a cadre of solid veterans could take them, and that they wouldn’t be doing it in any particular style.
Again: ninth place in the West, and they backed into the Wild Card round before being dumped out of it by Tim Melia’s PK mastery.
But it was an honest-to-god trip to the postseason, and the pieces are there to improve heading into next season.
Formation & Tactics
When he had all his pieces available, Luchi seemed to want to play a 4-3-3-ish 4-2-3-1 with one traditional playmaking winger (Espinoza) balancing an inverted, goalscoring winger (usually Cade Cowell).
It was a “4-3-3ish 4-2-3-1” not, I think, for tactical reasons, but rather because both Jackson Yueill and Jamiro Monteiro are both 8s. So why not a pure 4-3-3? Well, because Monteiro – no matter the lineup – seemed only to want to play as a No. 10. He’d just drift into that spot no matter what, and because he is as talented as he is (and as committed as he is defensively, even if he is a chaos agent tactically), it just… kind of made sense, I guess, to let it play out that way.
What I’m saying is the midfield was kind of an unbalanced mess, even with Carlos Gruezo at the base, and that inflected everything the Quakes wanted to do, with them playing much more against the ball than I suspect Luchi originally intended. And the numbers bear that out: They were mid-table in possession, passes per possession and field tilt in the first half of the season, and dropped into the bottom quadrant in all three of those numbers for the second half.
I can’t put my finger on one particular thing, or one particular moment – no incredible, 90-minute, team-wide performance; no blitz of a four-game winning streak, not even a playoff push.
Seriously, this team went into Decision Day with a home game against already-eliminated Austin FC and their fate in their hands. If you can’t beat Austin at home you don’t deserve to make the playoffs, right?
So my choice for this year’s highlight was signing this guy:
If anything, that radar undersells it: Daniel had the ninth-best G-xG season in American Soccer Analysis’s database, which goes back to 2013. His 2023 season was smack in between Andre Blake’s two best years, and just ahead of Roman Bürki’s Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year performance.
The best part is those numbers are in line with what he was doing in Brazil. This season wasn’t a one-off.
The home draw against Austin that helped get the Quakes into the playoffs and was thus one of the highlights of the season also was one of the lowlights of the season because a win would’ve gotten them home-field advantage in the Wild Card round.
God did I want to write about Niko Tsakiris here, and you can see why from the radar:
Those are Jack McGlynn-esque ball progression numbers. Absolutely elite stuff.
Like his Philly counterpart at 18, though, Tsakiris still has miles to go defensively and still doesn’t consistently provide the final ball. He's got to take a big step forward in one of those two facets of the game (preferably both!) next year if he’s going to be a regular starter.
So yeah, no revelations.
Jeremy Ebobisse saw his goal total drop from 17 to 10, and his underlying numbers hit a career low. Cowell… this year was a disaster for the kid, as he scored just once and looked further from high-level attacking output than he did as a 16-year-old.
The players themselves deserve their share of the blame, obviously. But I’ll just note the same issues that plagued Luchi's Dallas teams – hesitancy pushing forward and a lack of final third kill patterns – were plastered all over this year’s Quakes.
Five Players to Build Around
- Daniel (GK): An odds-on favorite for Goalkeeper of the Year.
- Gruezo (DM): Had a solid if unspectacular year.
- Espinoza (W): Had a solid and often spectacular year, and remains one of the best pure chance creators in the league.
- Ebobisse (FW): We saw in 2022 that he’s a 15+ goal scorer if he gets service in the right system.
- Rodrigues (CB): One of the better ball-playing center backs in MLS.
For the sake of the project – to really become a team that has an identity – they’ve got to sell Cowell, right? Between Benji Kikanovic, Matthew Hoppe (if his transfer option's picked up) and youngster Cruz Medina (who you can see with the US at the U-17 World Cup this month) they’ve got ample depth to replace him from within, and that’s supposed to be the whole thing: develop and sell.
Of course, building the club identity is different from building the roster. And if I were to point at one thing that’d help the roster the most this winter, it’s getting a true No. 10. A genius-level chance creator can help paper over whatever structural issues there are with this team’s attack, and can take some of the work off of Espinoza’s plate.
Barring a big move like that, I think you’re just kind of rearranging deck chairs while hoping one of the kids hits bigger and sooner than anyone reasonably expects.