The San Jose Earthquakes will make their way to Orlando City Stadium for the first time this evening boasting several new faces in search of an identity. After squeaking into the playoffs in 2017 under an interim manager, San Jose’s front office decided to go in a new, largely Scandinavian, direction. The Earthquakes are still finding themselves this early into 2018, which bodes well for the hometown Lions.
But no matter which players either side has rolled out since Orlando City entered MLS, these cross-country foes have had plenty of wild finishes and zero decisive results. With both teams taking new angles at building their rosters, perhaps that changes this year. Robert Jonas, manager of SB Nation’s Center Line Soccer, has answered some questions to give us an inside look at the away team:
A lot has changed since these teams last met. What are the big differences for San Jose since last season?
Robert Jonas: The biggest change to the Earthquakes comes on the coaching side, with new head coach Mikael Stahre taking over in the off-season following a rather tumultuous 2017 campaign. Two-time MLS Cup championship coach Dominic Kinnear started the season in charge, but he was fired in June by new general manager Jesse Fioranelli, who envisioned a new direction for the club since taking the job in January. Technical director and former MLS defender Chris Leitch stepped in as head coach for the second half of the season, leading the Quakes to the postseason for the first time in five years after guiding the team to a last-minute victory on the final day of play. Leitch returned to his TD role following San Jose’s ejection from the MLS Cup playoffs at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Stahre was named head coach in late November.
On the field, the squad features a new Designated Player in midfielder Magnus Eriksson, who was the Swedish top-league scoring champion a year ago. Eriksson already has a pair of goals for the Quakes, and he’s proven to be a tough-as-nails competitor along the right side of the formation. Fellow DP Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili is settled in too after joining San Jose last summer, and the pair of midfielders has transformed the team’s attacking approach. The defensive back line is new as well, with Yeferson Quintana, who turned 22 this week, on loan from Penarol in Uruguay. His regular center back partner Harold Cummings is suspended this week, so he’ll line up with Francois Affolter, another summer signing from last year, in the Quakes lineup on Saturday.
Mikael Stahre has really been tinkering with lineups this year, going so far as benching Chris Wondolowski last week. What kind of style does Stahre prefer and how does it compare to the team under Dom Kinnear?
RJ: Stahre is still experimenting with the lineup as he looks for the perfect combination of tactics to fit the personnel he has at his disposal. The Quakes have tried to play a high press at times, which has left the newly formed defense vulnerable, but it’s at least created a much more potent offense, and San Jose has looked most dangerous in front of goal when implementing this approach. The first-year MLS head coach has also set his team up with more midfielders in an attempt to control possession, as they did last weekend against the Houston Dynamo, but with limited success. Bottom line: Stahre has yet to solve the tactics and formation puzzle for the squad at hand.
Benching Chris Wondolowski, the team’s on-field captain and leader in virtually every offensive statistic, did allow the team to feature a faster midfield against the Dynamo, but the team’s defensive struggles were exposed even more, and the 2-2 draw was a generous result for the way San Jose played. Stahre stated this week that Wondolowski might be back in the lineup for the game against Orlando City, as the coach goes back to a more tried and true formation. The Quakes, on the whole, are a better attacking team than they were a year ago, but they still do not have a completely organized approach that keeps opponents from harassing their vulnerable defense.
San Jose has struggled to hold onto leads so far in 2018, dropping points after leading at some point in all of the last three matches. What has been the biggest reason for the Quakes’ issues there?
RJ: The Earthquakes are not competing to finish first in the Western Conference. Realistically, they are a mid-table team at best, so they are susceptible to lapses in play. The aforementioned new defensive line has struggled to be consistent all season, with second-year fullback Nick Lima the only player to show he can be depended on this season to be effective over 90 minutes. The center backs, along with goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, have been woefully inconsistent in building possession out of the back, so when opponents are more aggressive in pressing higher up the field, poor decision making leads to more turnovers.
The midfield line has also been caught out at times and not helped on defense as much as can be required. Stahre’s tactical changes have tried to address this, but the entire formation is still a work in progress. The margin for error is slim for these Quakes, and all it takes is one missed assignment, a poor tackle, an unbalanced shift in the formation, and they’ve been punished. Three straight games San Jose has taken a one-goal lead into the locker room at intermission, and three straight times they’ve dropped points due to inadequate defensive performances in the second half. Orlando City will be a big test for the Earthquakes, especially in the way they load up the midfield. San Jose will need to be disciplined for 90 minutes to get anything out of Saturday’s match.
What injuries/suspensions will keep players out this weekend and what is your projected lineup and predicted final score?
RJ: The only player not available for selection this weekend is Cummings, who had a second game added to his suspension by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for violent conduct in San Jose’s 1-1 draw at the Philadelphia Union. Stahre will certainly start Danny Hoesen at forward, but whether or not Wondolowski lines up next to the Dutch striker remains to be seen. Given the head coach’s proclivity to experiment this early in the season, the formation and lineup for Saturday’s game is definitely in flux.
Thanks again to Robert for giving us the skinny on San Jose.