Matias Almeyda has spent three off seasons transforming the San Jose earthquakes into his image.
This is the year to prove it works.
The team that kicks off the Major League Soccer season in Houston on Friday night has seven players chosen by Almeyda, an Argentinian-born who has broken down the veins of talent he knows best.
If everything goes according to plan, the earthquakes will fight for the MLS Cup playoffs for the second year in a row. It’s a big question for San Jose, even though seven of the 13 Western Conference teams will hit the postseason.
Some of the usual suspects are preferred, including Los Angeles FC, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders FC, and Sporting Kansas City. The Quakes face challenges for the remaining berths of Austin FC, Colorado Rapids, Dallas FC, Los Angeles Galaxy and Minnesota United.
Note: A search of MLS predictions from several major soccer companies revealed that no analysts selected San Jose for the playoffs. Many seem to have doubts about the quakes’ ability to achieve sustainable success.
In other words: is this team good?
Sometimes the earthquakes are crazy to collapse at their Indianapolis 500 pace. But they are also prone to soul-destroying defensive rounds, which resulted in them finishing eighth of twelve teams at the Western Conference two years in a row.
Almeyda has recognized the risk of his all-encompassing human-influenced style that has sometimes exposed the Quakes’ defense.
“But that’s how I convey it because that’s how I live it,” he said.
47-year-old Almeyda is a deep believer in how to play football.
“I think you try to convey sporting values to the players,” he said in Spanish. “First and foremost, I’m interested in making happy groups and also making them play like amateur players because while they are professionals they will play with love, passion, unity and respect for their opponents and themselves.”
Almeyda and General Manager Jesse Fioranelli joined the 2021 squad with three offseason signings from players Almeyda had previously coached.
The largest of these signings is Javier “Chofis” Lopez, who played for Almedya at Chivas but was cut by the club in November for his involvement in a sexual abuse case that focused on a then teammate.
Fioranelli said the Quakes “thoroughly evaluated” 26-year-old Lopez before agreeing to a one-year loan deal.
San Jose’s success could depend on the game from Lopez, an attacking midfielder. The Quakes also added central midfielder Eric Remedi, who played under Almeyda at Banfield, Argentina, and Luciano Abecasis, a defender Almeyda coached at River Plate in Buenos Aires.
Remedi, acquired in a deal with Atlanta United FC, is expected to protect Judson, the starting defensive midfielder. Abecasis, 30, gives the backline experience after the Quakes swapped right-back Nick Lima for Austin FC.
The three new players will join Almeyda favorites Cristian Espinoza and Andy Rios from Argentina and Carlos Fierro and Oswaldo Alanis from Chivas.
Players from previous coaching regimes in San Jose who appear to be still in the squad are now accepting Almedya’s unorthodox methods.
It starts with Chris Wondolowski, the all-time leading MLS player, and aspiring US star midfielder Jackson Yueill.
38-year-old Wondolowski has returned for his farewell season. But if he plays like he did last year, fans could get another contract extension for the Quakes captaincy.
Wondolowski is the well-known earthquake star, largely based on previous successes. And that fits in with an Almeyda-inspired roster that relies more on team chemistry than individual fame.
As a defensive midfielder, Almedya represented Argentina at two World Cups and the 1996 Summer Olympics. He played professionally in the Spanish and Italian leagues and for the popular River Plate.
The coach expects his teams to play as if they were on cruise control for 80 mph. The style requires maximum physical condition every time.
Almeyda and Fioranelli also like to build programs from below. They believe in the benefits of a system-wide approach that feeds the senior team.
17-year-old striker Cade Cowell exemplifies strategy as a potential star. He is expected to get more playing time after playing 17 games in his debut season last year.
Alamo goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski is another young talent that the Quakes shaped. Marcinkowski, who will be 24 next month, took over the starting job for the last 11 games of the season on September 27th. Most recently, he played for the US U23 selection, which could not qualify for the Tokyo Games.
One of the Quakes’ few off-season distractions involved their coach, who is reportedly under contract until the 2022 season.
Almeyda reportedly had two MX league clubs interested in returning to Mexico, as well as the Chilean national team.
Almeyda stayed in San Jose for the time being.
Will it mean another disjointed season? Or is this the year San Jose moves to the top of the MLS?
The answers could come early with five of the Quakes’ first seven games scheduled for PayPal Park in San Jose on April 24 against FC Dallas. A strong start at home could trigger a playoff bid, but the lack of points in San Jose could quickly put the earthquakes on negative trajectory.