Matias Almeyda - staring - closeup
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San Jose's style at MLS is Back Tournament is a question mark, and they're staying mum | Charles Boehm

If you’re reading this in the United States, you probably don’t have big Friday night plans, because of the whole raging pandemic thing we still got going on. So perhaps this tip will be of some use to you: I’ve got tonight’s San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders marked as the most interesting match of the MLS is Back Tournament’s opening days (9 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).

It’s always interesting to watch the defending champions, though in this case I’m even more intrigued about the Quakes. If anyone tells you they know what to expect from Matias Almeyda’s side right now, I’d contend that they’re either deceiving or deluded.

San Jose have been on site in Florida for two weeks now. They were the first to arrive because of limitations on their ability to conduct group training back home by the Bay, and that’s a glass half-full/half-empty situation.

On the one hand it means they’ve had barely two weeks to prepare themselves for match action as a group — as far as we know they haven’t squeezed in so much as a single scrimmage against outside opposition. Almeyda has made clear that he considers that a huge handicap, no shock given what we’ve learned about his idiosyncratic tactical system and the collective coordination it requires. (It bears repeating here that they’re also unlucky enough to have to face the champs in their first game back.)

On the other hand, it means that they’re more acclimated to this event’s climate, setting and rhythm than the other out-of-state teams, with a solid sequence of intense workouts in the Orlando heat and humidity — and precious little in the way of distractions. “El Pelado” took his squad to distant Cancun for immersive training camps in both of their preseasons under his leadership so far, so he knows how to manage these situations.

An even bigger question, though: Who are the Quakes even going to be at the MLS is Back Tournament?

The Earthquakes failed to capitalize on their run of form in summer 2019. | USA Today Images

Last year was a roller coaster for this side; they suffered early while mastering Almeyda’s ways, then charged towards the top of the standings in the summer, only to skid into a deep dog-days swoon and never escape, crashing just short of playoff qualification like a battered biplane with a bone-dry fuel tank.

Did the rest of MLS figure them out? Is Almeyda’s man-marking, heavy-metal methodology too exhausting to sustain – and is it even conceivable in a compressed timeframe like this month? How might the formula be tweaked? Do they even think it needs to be?

“I think most teams in this tournament will have the same question, so I'm not going to answer that right now,” striker Danny Hoesen said when I asked him that question in a media availability this week. “But we had time to train the last two weeks and try different things. And it's always about surprising the opponent, so I would like to keep that within the team.”

Well, that just adds to the mystery, doesn’t it? Win or lose, sink or swim, the Quakes remain one of the most intriguing teams in the league