Earthquakes Break New Ground
It was the news San Jose Earthquake fans had been waiting to hear.
“I’m grateful being in this place and hopeful this will keep growing,” Matías Almeyda said. “Changing clubs does not even cross my mind.”
The speculation surrounding the Argentine’s future had been intense. Talk of a release clause in his contract has bubbled away in the background during his first year in MLS and now reports had claimed Liga MX club Monterrey were ready to bring him back to Mexico.
After the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a playoff spot on the final day of the season, Almeyda’s commitment was welcome news. The team finished eighth in a competitive Western Conference, and although their season has now ended, Almeyda and his players have reinstalled a hope and enthusiasm that was absent this time last year.
Almeyda’s predecessor, Mikael Stahre, struggled to capture the imagination with his ultra-conservative style and was let go after only ten months in the job. If spirits were low last year this season has seen the full gambit of emotions play out.
The Earthquakes lost all four of their opening league games under Almeyda. That was when anger came to the fore.
“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,” Tommy 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 between that game in early April and mid-August, the team lost just three of their nineteen league games. Joy returned.
While heart, desire, and other intangibles were present throughout that run, there was also a strong tactical identity emerging. Almeyda 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 explained to the Athletic. “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.”
As the team clicked, individuals began thriving. Chris Wondolowski, a veteran forward, ended the campaign with 15 goals. Jackson Yeuill thrived in central midfield and earned a first call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team in June (he has since received almost half-a-dozen caps). And perhaps one of the best success stories has been Tommy Thompson.
The 24-year-old made his name in the league as an attacking midfielder, but this season has shone as a full-back. Understandably, few have invested themselves in Almeyda’s vision quite like Thompson.
“When I first heard Matías’ message of what he’s going to try and do with this team, what he’s going to try and do with this organization. After the second or third meeting he had with the team, I told myself, ‘I have to learn Spanish.’”
Unfortunately, what made the Earthquakes so devastating ultimately became their undoing. Their intense high pressing machine eventually ran out of steam and from August 10 to October 6 they won just twice.
Despite that disappointment, there were still positives to be drawn from the season. There were a pair of memorable wins against rivals the LA Galaxy, and in the broader context, Almeyda was able to take an underperforming squad, and both reinvent and reinvigorate them with a clear identity.
It’s a testament to Almeyda’s quality that San Jose Earthquakes fans don’t want to lose him, even though the team failed to make the playoffs. There is undoubtedly a foundation to build upon next season, and if Almeyda is given the resources to operate in the transfer market, there is no reason the Quakes can’t be a playoff team in 12 months.
In the meantime, fans can enjoy what was an entertaining season. Thompson’s passionate plea against Portland promised that San Jose would be different, and the Earthquakes have undoubtedly delivered on that promise, which is good not only for their supporters but also for MLS.