National Writer: Charles Boehm

What went wrong with Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes?

“If in life you do what you like, and you do it with passion and love, you will have fewer chances of making mistakes … If you are in football loving what you do, then you have the will to continue growing. And growing above all, correcting your own mistakes. If you do something out of obligation, out of interest, the path is short.”

Those were just a few of Matias “Pelado” Almeyda’s inspiring words in 2020 when his San Jose Earthquakes blossomed into pandemic Cinderellas.

With their spirit and uniquely chaotic style of play, the PeladoBall Quakes entertained the daylights out of us during the MLS is Back Tournament, then weathered NorCal wildfire smoke to reel off an unlikely hot streak down the stretch and qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for just the second time since their Supporters’ Shield-winning 2012 campaign.

There they gave top-seeded Sporting Kansas City a profound scare before falling to Tim Melia’s penalty-kick mastery in a shootout to decide the winner of a breathless, 120-minute 3-3 draw, concluding a wild season encouragingly enough to convince club legend Chris Wondolowski to delay his retirement one more year. With their pressing, man-marking and constant, reckless aggression, they were just plain fun, a neutral’s dream – constantly leaking goals, and conjuring them in turn.

“We joke, and I say this facetiously, that our team is made for 2020,” said Wondo that autumn. “2020 is crazy. We’re mayhem.”

End of an era

In retrospect, that was probably the high-water mark of the Almeyda era, which officially drew to a close on Monday when the club announced his official release. San Jose have appointed Alex Covelo as interim head coach; he's been serving as head coach for Earthquakes II in MLS NEXT Pro.

After three and a half tumultuous years, Pelado is moving on from the Bay, and the hard truth is that many Quakes supporters feel he’s been checked out mentally for months. In February he said that “I have 10 months before I’m free,” and after flashing huge optimism upon his arrival ahead of the 2019 season, made no secret of his perceived disappointment with ownership’s limited appetite for spendy signings ever since. He also made a habit of skipping league-mandated weekly pre and post-game media availabilities, while still giving interviews to favored outlets overseas.

Almeyda professes to live by the Bushido code. And while he kept faithful to the project amid heavy interest from big-name clubs and national teams in its early years – and his players kept faithful to him right to the end – at some point in recent months his dissatisfaction with his situation grew to the point that it seemed to put his fidelity to those principles in question, at least from the outside.

As his own words at the top of this page remind us, Almeyda’s way of working does not flourish in an environment of obligation.

Where did it go wrong?

When the news of Almeyda’s impending departure crystallized on Sunday, I asked Earthquakes fans for their perspectives on his tenure. While opinions were split over whether he or the club’s ownership group were fundamentally to blame for the team’s poor results, many also shared nuanced takes to the effect that it’s probably some of both.

They wrote that they’d like to see a great deal more ambition shown from the top. That they believe their club, and their soccer region as a whole, remains a sleeping giant. And that this doesn’t excuse the mistakes made by Pelado – who ranked as one of the league’s best-paid coaches – when it came to big signings, lineups, tactics and in-game adjustments.

Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle laid out the pitfalls in his Sunday wrap of MLS Week 7 action: Almeyda’s pedal-to-the-metal tactics courted too many risks, leading to way too many clear scoring chances for opponents, and the improvement that was supposed to come from signing more of his hand-picked players never materialized. That probably didn’t strengthen his case for increased investment.

San Jose are indeed not among MLS’s big spenders, which grates on those who look at their Silicon Valley surroundings and wonder why not, and what could be. What’s less subjective is that several of the clubs who’ve been more frugal than them have churned out paths to far, far better results lately. In fact, the best statistical results of Almeyda’s reign came with the team he inherited, rather than the ones he had the biggest hand in crafting:

Like Marcelo Bielsa, his countryman, ideological bedfellow and former coach on the Argentine national team, Almeyda holds clear and generally uncompromising principles about how the game is best played, and how players, teams and coaches work best within it. Both demand full immersion and devotion from those they work with – physically, mentally and emotionally. Both also have track records that suggest their methodologies have finite boundaries as well.

Hiring Almeyda was a coup for the Quakes, and one they pulled off at a low point in their history, the dying days of the 2018 season that ranks as their worst ever. It was a bold and laudable step into the unknown for both club and manager (remember, Pelado was named Concacaf’s men’s coach of the year a few weeks later). There were success stories, too: Many players, like Jackson Yueill, Tommy Thompson, Tanner Beason and Cade Cowell made great individual strides under his guidance, and the team’s heart-racing highs were truly a blast.

The clock, however, was always ticking, just as it was for Atlanta United under Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who famously noted that in his world, a manager’s suitcase is always packed and ready by the door. In a league with persistent copycat tendencies, ATLUTD, the Earthquakes and other clubs who think outside of the box on coaching hires deserve credit. But that’s only one facet of a complex equation.

Who takes over the helm?

So, who’s next? Do the Quakes downshift to something more familiar, less risky?

We know Covelo takes the helm on an interim basis, assisted by Quakes II assistant coach Luciano Fusco, Steve Ralston and Wondo, two figures with substantial roots at the club. It’s quite conceivable that they keep things that way through the season, which might not wow the skeptics but would allow for a bigger pool of candidates after the World Cup ends in December.

Even now, there’s already clearly significant interest:

The cupboard isn’t bare, either, even if odds are that Javier Eduardo "Chofis" López won't be purchased on a permanent basis when his current loan deal from Liga MX's Chivas expires in June. Despite the stiff headwind posed by their MLS-worst 0W-4L-3D start to the season, San Jose have the league’s co-leading scorer (Jeremy Ebobisse) and co-assist leader (Jan Gregus) on the books.

Other regulars like Nathan, Cristian Espinoza, Jamiro Monteiro and JT Marcinkowski have shown they can be impactful contributors. There’s an ongoing youth movement headlined by Cowell – who’s widely expected to command a seven-figure transfer fee when he’s ready to go abroad – but flush with other intriguing prospects as well.

General manager Chris Leitch made some savvy moves since taking over that post, initially on an interim basis, last summer. He and his front-office colleagues might want to get a good look at what the current roster can achieve when deployed in a less outlandishly-aggressive game model.

In the longer view, though, Quakes supporters are understandably impatient and in need of inspiration. They need something tangible to anchor their allegiance on, to restore their hope. If the current squad can’t deliver that on the pitch, the club may have to secure a prominent coach who can.

Almeyda out, what now for San Jose?