Preseason 2018 - San Jose Earthquakes - Jacob Akanyirige - JT Marcinkowski - Gilbert Fuentes
Courtesy of San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose Earthquakes enter 2018 preseason with full youth movement underway

SAN JOSE, Calif. – In an offseason full of change for the San Jose Earthquakes, the appointment of Mikael Stahre as head coach was an outlier in one interesting respect: At 42, Stahre is nearly four full years older than his predecessor, current Quakes technical director Chris Leitch.

Almost everywhere else, San Jose have gotten younger. As club captain Chris Wondolowski, the team’s most grizzled veteran at 34, put it Wednesday after undergoing the annual beep test: “I have to go against 16-year-olds – never had to do that before.”

That 16-year-old – Homegrown defender Jacob Akanyirige – is at the cutting edge of general manager Jesse Fioranelli’s remaking of the San Jose roster. Gone as of this winter are stalwarts such as defender Victor Bernardez (35 years old), goalkeeper David Bingham (28) and midfielder Darwin Cerén (28). Fioranelli has re-stocked his roster with nine new players, only one of whom is over the age of 25: forward Magnus Eriksson, a 27-year-old Designated Player coming off a 14-goal, seven-assist season for Swedish top-flight club Djurgardens IF in 2017.

Outside of Wondolowski, the Quakes currently have only three other players who have crossed the 30-year-old barrier: Quincy Amarikwa, Simon Dawkins and Shea Salinas.

San Jose got even younger Friday, with the announcement of a Homegrown contract for 15-year-old midfielder Gilbert Fuentes.

“I think it’s really good,” second-year midfielder Jackson Yueill told on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of new young faces in the team who don’t really have that much experience being here. Getting a year under my belt and being able to kind of help them along the road of what I experienced last year and how I moved into the team, I think it’s going to be very helpful. I’m pretty excited to be able to help them do what they need as well as play with them, because they’re all good players.”

Yueill was the vanguard of the Quakes’ wave. Sent to San Jose’s USL affiliate in Reno for the first half of the season by then-coach Dominic Kinnear, the 20-year-old was called back up by Leitch, who gave the former UCLA Bruin 12 appearances in 17 league matches at the helm. Now Yueill, along with all the Quakes, will have to impress Stahre and earn his playing time all over again.

“It is a bit hard, but you put in the work,” Yueill said. “With any coach, as long as you work hard and show what you’re capable of doing, I think they’ll have faith in you. … When I first heard about [the move], immediately, your mind goes to, ‘How can I help him and be in a position this season where he’ll put trust in me?’”

Among the newcomers, Joel Qwiberg (25) is expected to step in as a starting left back and Yeferson Quintana (21) could feature in the middle of the back line, alongside Harold Cummings (25), who is technically not new but has yet to make his San Jose debut after missing 2017 with a sports hernia and fractured ankle that both required surgery to repair.

For Qwiberg, a veteran of one of Sweden’s top developmental sides – Brommapojkama – the opportunity to help bring along the Quakes’ youth brigade was one of the reasons he chose MLS over other opportunities in Sweden’s top league, the Allsvenskan.

“I like that type of club that likes young players,” Qwiberg told reporters. “I want to be a part of the young players’ careers, also. The best thing that can happen to me is, let’s say one of the guys here, [such as] Jacob, that are super-young, ends up as a super player, and he will, in an interview in 10 years, tell them, ‘Yeah, Joel Qwiberg from Sweden was a big part of my success.’ I think soccer is more than just what you are doing on the field, so I like that a lot.”

Of course, the ultimate old head will be Wondolowski, who holds club records for MLS appearances, starts, minutes and goals.

“It’s been a concept I’ve been trying to work on in past years, just to grapple with it, that you’re a veteran, how do you do this?” Wondolowski said. “I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that they’re friends. They’re great guys. … I try to lead by example or just show him the right way to do it. I don’t have to necessarily sit him down and have talks with him and lessons, but just be his friend and talk about life situations and try to pass on life experience.”