What Are They All About? San Jose Earthquakes
A statement of intent. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated Minnesota United FC at SeatGeek Stadium by a score line of 2-0. The result was their second consecutive victory and third match on the trot without a loss. Although Adrian Heath and his charges left without any points, they will consider themselves lucky not to have shipped four or five goals in an encounter that saw the Fire’s front six continue to grow in confidence and understanding. A few weeks removed landing in the MLS coaching hotseat, Veljko Paunovic seems to be getting the best out of his players as they head into a weekend that could see them climb above the playoff line against San Jose at Avaya Stadium (Saturday 2:30 CT on UniMas).
The Earthquakes find themselves amid a rebuild after firing Mikael Stahre at the tail end of last season. They handed the reins to Argentine Matias Almeyda, a manager known for his ability to get the best out of his players with a knack for getting once proud clubs back on track. Successfully guiding River Plate back to the Primera in 2012 after their historic drop, Almeyda did the same with Banfield in 2013 before moving to Chivas and ending their nine-year trophy drought by winning Copa MX in 2015. He peaked with Guadalajara last season, claiming the CONCACAF Champions League trophy and has undertaken the challenge of righting a San Jose ship that has looked all but sunk in recent years. He’s seemingly been given full control of player acquisitions, promises of funding from classically stringent ownership, and has brought his revolutionary tactics to MLS in a way which has achieved success in recent weeks. The Quakes, like the Fire, are within touching distance of a playoff position in the standings.
In the grand scheme of things, early season matches against opponents outside of your conference are seen as opportunities for “bonus” points, but this fixture could offer a bit of respite to whoever emerges victorious. Will the hosts continue to grow into a style that calls for zonal astuteness? Or, will the visitors point out the flaws of such a system when utilized against the whimsical play of Aleksandar Katai and the speed of Przemek Frankowski? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
San Jose Form Guide: L-W-D-D-W
Previous Result: A 3-1 away loss against New England.
Formation: 4-1-4-1; Vega; Lima, Jungwirth, Cummings, Thompson; Yueill; Calvillo, Eriksson, Godoy, Salinas; Hoesen
Strengths: In many ways this San Jose project could have fallen apart before it even got going. Coming to MLS was a major risk for Almeyda and snagging one of the hottest commodities in the business was not easy for the franchise. The final product is nowhere near ready but the type of changes being implemented in Northern California could spell long-term success for a side desperately in need of it. Let’s see where the Quakes might thrive this weekend.
Lead by Example: Although Almeyda has shown an intention to use his South American connections to bolster the Quakes—adding Cristian Espinoza, Marcos Lopez, and Judson to the squad in January—his trust in long time leader Shea Salinas has also paid off. The current team captain has played all but two of his twelve professional seasons donning the San Jose crest and has taken on added responsibility in terms of goal scoring this season. Traditionally utilized as an outside back, Salinas has shifted to playing on the wing in this current setup. He has four goals and an assist in nine appearances from this new position. Moreover, Salinas has been an important factor in meshing together a locker room often distanced by language barriers, a new philosophy, and the uneasiness that can be felt with new management making potentially career altering judgement on players. Jorge Corrales will have his hands full on Saturday and Katai will have to do more tracking back than he’d like if the Fire are to be successful.
Trae el Mate: While the likes of Salinas, Danny Hoesen, Magnus Eriksson, and the other players under contract when Almeyda arrived have been given the opportunity to prove their worth, they’ve also wholeheartedly bought into the Argentine’s system. The sheer energy that has been required by Almeyda’s system change and an unwavering need for high fitness levels is turning this Quakes side into a must-watch team when in its stride. They press quickly and ruthlessly to win the ball back and when in possession there is an unconscious switch-flip programmed into the side that sees them attack in synchronized waves.
Erikkson and Argentine import Espinoza have the ability to play pinpoint balls onto the feet of Hoesen and Salinas who have been relentless in their stretching of MLS backlines known for tall, strong, and cumbersome center backs. Additionally, the duo’s function as a high playing double pivot creates headaches for sides who sit in low blocks because of their ability to unlock stubborn back lines. Paunovic will certainly have a midfield selection headache when it comes to countering these two.
The last piece of the attacking puzzle is the overlapping outlet provided on either side of the field by Nick Lima and Tommy Thompson. Two players uniquely built to fit the high demands of the current system—in terms of age and quickness—they’ll need to be tracked extensively by a backline not exactly set up to defend wide. Should the Fire trot out their favored 3-5-2, they could be exposed on the flanks in transition.
Let’s Get Out Injury and Suspension Free: On the one hand, Chicago will certainly see this as an opportunity for three points and a push up the standings. On the other, not getting any points from a trip to the West Coast amidst injury absences and a Bastian Schweinsteiger suspension is not the end of the world. Mandated rotation is one thing, but Paunovic may just be thinking about limiting minutes for the likes of Dax McCarty, Johan Kappelhof, and Katai prior to a busy end of the month.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day this is a San Jose Franchise that has struggled immensely in recent years. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the last six years (2017) and even then, they were ousted from the post-season in the play-in round, losing 5-0 to Vancouver at home. Almeyda is among the best coaches in this hemisphere but success won’t come easily, and it won’t come quickly. Let’s see where the Earthquakes might struggle on Saturday.
I Thought You had Him: As alluded to above, one of the first changes to occur under Almeyda was switching to a system in which players are responsible for a certain area of the pitch. Often times, these designations seem to be marked vertically in twenty-five-yard increments. Rather than having a designated role in man-marking or communicating with teammates about roles depending on the development of play or situational scenarios, San Jose sticks to this zonal strategy. Adjusting to this system took time as it requires a heightened fitness level and necessitates a tactical switch that many, perhaps none, of the Quakes players have ever had to make before. Results showed as much with San Jose losing five of their opening six fixtures. Players seemed lost, their lack of coping with the physical necessities of the system was evident, and frustrations were ready to boil over as Almeyda’s approach was questioned.
However, a breakthrough seemed to occur in their match against Portland where they put three goals on the board that went unanswered by the visitors. Since that Portland match, the Quakes have gone on to lose just two of seven. And yet, there are glimpses of those early days against teams utilizing a certain style. Specifically, the implementation of a target forward or two.
In their previous match, the Quakes gave New England just their second win on the season after interim coach Mike Lapper exposed a flaw in Almeyda’s system. He opted to start a more out and out center forward, Teal Bunbury, as part of the front two in a 4-4-2—next to Diego Fagundez. Behind them, Juan Agudelo and Cristian Penilla were asked to play vertically behind either striker. The duos then overloaded one singular vertical quadrant simultaneously when the Revs had the ball while overlapping fullbacks provided even more support. This caused chaos for a back line finally used to having areas rather than persons to mark. The result was a 2-0 lead for New England before the thirty-minute mark as Edgar Castillo provided a cross of an unmarked Agudelo for the first while Penilla slotted home a penalty for the second. The spot kick itself was set up by a rash Harold Cummings foul on Bunbury as the Quakes man attempted to compensate coverage for a second player entering his quadrant.
If Chicago can get more minutes out of CJ Sapong than they have recently due to injury recovery and if they utilize Katai and Frankowski vertically rather than making diagonal cuts across defensive lines, Chicago might have the tools to get points from this trip. Similarly, Nemanja Nikolic should be told to run across the two center backs rather than making vertical or diagonal runs as he usually does. This reversal of striker instinct will question the backline’s chemistry and understanding of when to pass off marking responsibilities.
Prediction: The Fire will continue their undefeated streak, but they won’t get their first away win of the season. Chicago 2- 2 San Jose. Goals from Nikolic and Sapong for the visitors. Hoesen and Wondolowski for the hosts.