Tommy Thompson knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
The 23-year-old was angry. The San Jose Earthquakes had lost all four of their opening league games under new head coach Matías Almeyda. The culmination of that run involved a 5-0 demolition by rivals LAFC, and before their next match, Thompson wanted to address things head on.
“I ’don’t care what happened last game, I ’don’t care what happened the game before that, today ’we’re going to be different,” Thompson said, staring down the lens during a pre-game interview. “I believe in this team, I believe in this coach, I believe in this organization. ’We’re gonna fix this.”
The Quakes went on to beat the Portland Timbers 3-0, and since that game in early April the team have lost just three games in MLS — including a 3-0 victory against Zlatan ’Ibrahimovic’s LA Galaxy this past weekend.
“I wanted to do it at that time because I knew the results were going to come,” Thompson said this week. “Even though it had been a difficult start, I believe wholeheartedly in what Matias was saying and preaching in preseason.”
His faith in Almeyda was well-founded. The 45-year-old arrived in San Jose months after concluding a successful spell in Mexico with Guadalajara. The move caught the attention of many inside the league and was seen as something of a coup. The Earthquakes entered 2019 on the back of a desperately poor season in MLS during which they finished bottom of the Western Conference, 10 points adrift from the next placed team, the Colorado Rapids.
Coach Mikael ’Stahre’s style --often conservative-- struggled to capture the imagination and was let go after only 10 months in the job.
In Almeyda, the club had a coach eager to reshape the entire organisation. His plans were ambitious but risky. Stahre had overseen an influx of new faces during his time in charge, and as such, that meant there was little room for Almeyda to revamp the squad.
Instead, he focused his energy on changing the ’team’s style. He wanted his side to be proactive and aggressive -- asking his players to man-mark opponents rather than occupy a zone. His plan was detailed and demanded both physical and mental investment from his players.
“I think understanding exactly when to follow guys and when to switch [who ’you’re marking],” Thompson said. “It’s a delicate balance of making sure you stay with your guy, but then if your guy is going all over the field, you ’can’t just follow him. You have to be very cognizant about the other team trying to draw you out of your defensive position.”
Almeyda has shown unwavering confidence in his ideas, and that manifested early on in the form of bold changes to the ’team’s lineup. For the game against the Timbers in April both team captain Chris Wondolowski and Valeri Qazaishvili (the ’squad’s highest paid player) were benched.
Elsewhere, he introduced Florian Jungwirth and Jackson Yueill to galvanise the spine of the team, while Danny Hoeson started up top (and scored). Keen to experiment with his roster, Almeyda has also shown a willingness to deploy players in new positions when possible.
Thompson, previously an attack-minded midfielder, has been converted to play full-back and is thriving in his new role. Teammate Shea Salinas, better known as a defender, now operates in a more attacking role and is having his best season in front of goal.
“We believe in hard work,” Almeyda said after the victory against the Galaxy. “We believe in this team. From the moment we got here, ’we’ve believed in them, and we will keep believing in them. All the merit goes to the players, who have done a great job understanding our plan.”
True to his word, Almeyda has rewarded those working hard by returning Wondolowski and Qazaishvili to the starting lineup. The striker has notched eight goals in six starts, while Qazaishvili has notched three goals and an assist in his last two games.
The Georgian’s ability to dribble makes him a key asset for the Quakes. He is averaging 2.4 dribbles per game this season (putting him inside the top 5 in MLS) and only bettered in the San Jose squad by Cristian Espinoza, on loan from Villarreal.
“Yeah, he helps us a lot, and we are doing a good job,” Vako said, “so we need to continue like that.”
No one is congratulating themselves just yet. The Quakes are currently sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, with some work to do before they can be considered challengers.’’ But in the meantime, by engineering this run, Thompson and his teammates have at least delivered on his passionate promise to be ‘‘different.’’