EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
Last July, a 3-1 win for the San Jose Earthquakes over the Colorado Rapids extended their unbeaten record to four games, placing them third in the Western Conference standings. San Jose were, easily, the league’s biggest surprise and had lost just twice since late April.
The rest is history: the Quakes would go on to squander the positive momentum, lose nine of their last 12 games and fail to punch a ticket into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. The first season of the much-anticipated Matias Almeyda era ended on a painfully bitter note.
“I think the beginning of last season wasn’t good,” Almeyda said during his first press conference of 2020. “[Positively] changing a system of play doesn’t happen overnight. And, obviously, the first few games we lost many points.
“Then, we had 70 percent of the season that we did very well,” he added. “In the end, we were missing more. It could have been because we were trying to clinch playoffs too quickly – there were games that we should have managed differently. The year was good, and we hope that this season can be a little better.”
It begs the question of what version of San Jose will emerge in 2020. The team’s unconventional 4-2-3-1 system – with an emphasis on a high-pressing, fast-tempo, man-marking defensive structure and a possessional, shot-generating attack – caught most MLS teams off guard.
Then, a 1-1 draw against Columbus Crew SC on Aug. 3 halted the Quakes’ surge. Caleb Porter’s team demonstrated that with positional discipline and some homework on the opponent’s on-field tendencies, the Earthquakes, and all of their idiosyncratic ways, could be nullified. A three-game losing streak followed suit, with the club unable to replicate a dominant showing against the Vancouver Whitecaps, when they registered a league-record 43 shots throughout 90 minutes.
One doesn’t have to look too far past that showing to discover what San Jose needs to achieve success in 2020. A possessional advantage, superior set-pieces, strong play out of the back, and vertical dynamism from both wings are some of Almeyda’s go-tos.
With the permanent signings of winger Cristian Espinoza and midfielder Judson, Almeyda returns two players that were vital in 2019. Add in Chivas loanee Oswaldo Alanis to the mix at center back, and San Jose’s unique tactics could be even more effective.
After dropping their first four games of the 2019 season, a strong start this go-around is front-and-center. Now, Almeyda and his coaching staff are placing an even stronger emphasis on the preseason, specifically his players’ fitness levels.
“With all the medical staff and kinesiologists, we look at a lot of data before a preseason,” Almeyda said. “And we compared this year’s data with those of the last tournament prior to the last tournament. We found [that] each one of them were better. The physical tests we did are giving better [results].”
The Quakes, recently, carried out “double, triple” training sessions in Cancun, Mexico over a 15-day stretch in order to hit the ground running come the season opener. But maintaining their captivating style is undoubtedly the challenge facing San Jose.
“I don’t think we’re a preseason candidate,” Almeyda said when asked if his team could lift silverware in 2020. “Let’s play first, and then let’s see.”