It takes very little in the way of incisive analysis to recognize that things are dire by the Bay lately.
The San Jose Earthquakes are winless since the regular season resumed following their quarterfinal run at the MLS is Back Tournament, and they’ve settled to the bottom of the Western Conference standings (and second from last in the overall league table) with a thump. Most concerningly, they’ve been a sieve, giving up an eye-watering 23 goals in those seven games, including the embarrassing concession of seven at Seattle earlier this month and six at home to Portland on Saturday.
Talk to people on the ground in San Jose and those who know head coach Matias “Pelado” Almeyda well, and it becomes clear the Quakes’ situation is more complicated and nuanced than can fit into one piece. That said, here’s a rundown of three key areas that must be addressed if they are to lift themselves off the mat.
Wildfires burning Almeyda’s dogma
With its aggressive approach to possession and man-marking defense, Pelado’s high-octane style has few comparisons in MLS – it’s more akin to Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United or Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta. And no one in the league benefitted more from the immersive nature of the MLS is Back “bubble.”
On their return to the Bay Area, the Earthquakes have been buffered by disruptions, from COVID-19 restrictions to severe wildfires that poisoned the air and limited their ability to train. The heavy match schedule has exposed that mercilessly, giving Almeyda little time to address the problems.
“The main problem for me is that he can't impart his philosophy in the current situation. The air quality and the fact that they can't train 'normally' hurts a lot,” said MLS Español’s Ariel Judas, a veteran Argentine journalist who’s covered Almeyda and his teams for many years. “They were good in MLS is Back because they were together 24/7 and that's a proper environment for a coach like Almeyda to get the amount of effort he expects from his players … He's likable, he can relate with his players, but he also wants full engagement from them.”
Quakes take the field in 45 mins for the first time since Thursday night's 7-1 humiliation in Seattle.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 14, 2020
I made a little video on what the Sounders did -- which was basically just clear out the central midfield and have the wingers run routes. pic.twitter.com/LxUDRGKqp5
Almeyda is an intense, charismatic personality with little to no appetite for the type of pragmatism that would guide many coaches in his current predicament. Consider how D.C. United’s Ben Olsen parked the bus when his team hit the skids last month: Even now, with teams having scouted and dissected his system, that seems a non-starter for Pelado.
“I honestly think the system can work,” said Guadalajara-based ESPN journalist Tom Marshall, who had an up-close view of the manager’s stormy, but overall successful stint in charge of Chivas Guadalajara. “If you watched Leeds against Fulham the other day, Leeds concede goals that aren’t too different from some of the ones that the Earthquakes have conceded. Even Atalanta over in Italy, they also use that kind of man-marking system in defense.
“But it’s a fine line because the players have to be absolutely 100% fit, they've got to be absolutely 100% dedicated and they've got to be chasing everything like lunatics, almost. They've got to be 100% involved and that in some ways can make up for a deficit in talent. But obviously, the situation that he's had in recent weeks where you’re traveling around, you've had the fires that you can't train properly and the players, they look really tired.”
Extratime: Lack of fight is biggest issue for Quakes
So Almeyda must either pull another rabbit out of his soccer psychologist’s hat to get his team believing again, or upgrade the options at his disposal. Which brings us to…
At this point there’s no getting around it: The Quakes’ current roster is widely perceived to be a step or two behind many MLS counterparts, particularly in the fiercely competitive Western “pod” it’s been playing against of late. And when so much of the system revolves around winning and exploiting one-on-one duels, that can turn things ugly in a hurry.
“It's there to see that we aren't being competitive, we have a lot of youngsters. The project here is different," Almeyda told Argentina’s Radio Continental on Sunday. “Today there is a big difference between the opponents we are playing and ourselves. Our team needs a different physical state, I know well what we have and how far we can go.”
The former Lazio star worked under some degree of personnel constraints in Guadalajara, who field only Mexican and Mexican-descended players. And he’s very comfortable with an underdog mentality. But as Marshall notes, Chivas are a big club who nonetheless possess plenty of quality and backed Almeyda at key junctures.
“When things maybe weren't going so well, the Chivas directors, the hierarchy, Jorge Vergara at the time, he pulled out his checkbook and he bought players – Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro, Alan Pulido,” said Marshall. “He got players that were 100% established, big names already, and they just kind of fit in and they made it work. They added that little bit of quality that really the team didn't have before those signings.
“The Earthquakes now as well, you suddenly put three, four absolute quality MLS players in that team, then I don't think they’re miles off as the recent results would show.”
Though they did splash seven figures to keep Cristian Espinoza permanently and brought in Liga MX alums Oswaldo Alanis and Carlos Fierro at Pelado’s request, the Quakes haven’t exactly been big spenders in the MLS arms race. They’ve got an unused Designated Player slot and open roster spots – including an International slot – and would seem to be crying out for an impact acquisition or three in the current transfer window.
Will ownership, and GM Jesse Fioranelli, step up?
Where’s [the next] Wondo?
The Quakes could use reinforcements in multiple areas but perhaps the biggest deficit lies in front of goal, where the transcendent movement and finishing of club icon Chris Wondolowski has yet to be adequately replaced. Yes, Wondo is still banging them in as a game-changing supersub; at 37, he’s not an everyday starter at this point.
Danny Hoesen has been inconsistent and is currently injured. Andres Rios appears to be Almeyda’s guy, but has scored just three goals in 1153 MLS minutes over two seasons to date. Cade Cowell looks like a legitimately special Homegrown phenom, but is still just 16 and the club is keen to shepherd him along carefully. And that’s about it, in terms of what’s presently in the cupboard. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that former San Jose prospect Danny Musovski has scored two goals off the bench over the past month down the coast at LAFC, including this one against the Quakes.
Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle might note the Quakes’ system is designed to give wingers lots of clear looks at goal, and their two DPs are wide men in Espinoza and Vako… who total four goals between them in this regular season. Fierro has done little in this sense as well. And Magnus Eriksson’s recent return to Sweden deprived the side of another occasional scoring presence in the final third.
Nowhere does significant investment pay off more handsomely in modern MLS than at the top of the spear, so this looks like the area where even a modest uptick in spending could be crucial for San Jose. Almeyda would probably say he doesn’t require a big dog up top, but it’d surely help.
“I'm pretty sure nobody at the Earthquakes ever said to him, we're going to spend loads of money and we're going to buy you a Carlos Vela or a [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. And Almeyda himself even said that he doesn't really want that, he wants to build a team,” noted Marshall. “Almeyda is good at plugging into the underdog spirit and getting that team of fighters. But I think that only works within reason.”
Whether it takes a talent injection, a tactical shift, a less daunting set of opponents on the schedule or some combination of the above, something new is required to staunch the bleeding in San Jose. And whatever he may say publicly, that surely hasn’t escaped Pelado.
“He knows something needs to change fast,” said Judas. “He may look like a bohemian, but he's not dumb.”