With the season beginning to draw to a close, Orlando City needs wins, and it needs them now. To try to get back in the habit of taking all three points the Lions will travel across the country for their yearly meeting with the San Jose Earthquakes.
In preparation for that meeting I had a virtual sit-down with Oz Lucero, manager and big boss over at SBNation’s Center Line Soccer. He was kind enough to give me a great look at how San Jose’s season has been going.
It’s been quite the turnaround for San Jose in 2019, after a 2018 season that rivaled Orlando in terms of the struggles the team experienced. If there’s one thing you could point to as being the biggest reason for this year’s success, what would it be?
Oz Lucero: A strong-willed Argentinian manager with amazing hair by the name of Matias Almeyda has made all the difference in San Jose. This is not a groundbreaking statement but the speed in which Almeyda has turned this team around in stunning. He is also doing this with mostly the same roster as last season, which was historically bad. He has instilled an identity that I don’t think this team has ever had. Sure, the Goonie era was fun but staying within striking distance then hoping for a last-minute goal was not a sustainable identity.
With Almeyda, the Quakes know what style they play and how each player fits into the game plan. “Everybody runs, everybody plays” has been the philosophy all season, and the Quakes have stuck to that match after match. Even the losses come playing their unique style of soccer, which was instilled by Almeyda. Last Saturday’s 3-1 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps was a perfect example of the mentality being ingrained in the Quakes. Even with their leader suspended and not patrolling the sidelines, the Quakes were able to play their style of soccer and impose their will on their opponent.
Cristian Espinoza was signed on loan from Villareal during the off-season and has two goals and 11 assists in 24 starts. Has he been as important to the team as the statistics suggest?
OL: Cristian Espinoza has been a critical piece in the Quakes’ turnaround of 2019. I keep saying that if the MVP award were handed out to the player that is most vital to their team’s success, Espinoza would be near the top of the list of finalists. He has missed three games this season, and in those the Quakes have two losses and a draw. Without his speed and skill on the ball, the Quakes offense is not as potent. His 2.5 successful dribbles per match are good enough for fourth in the league, Vako is first at 3.1 per game, and space he creates with those dribbles turns into nightmares for opposing goalkeepers.
With the Western Conference playoff race so tight what do the Earthquakes need to do in order to make sure they stay above the playoff line and get themselves back into the playoffs?
OL: To use an old sports cliche, they need to beat the teams they are supposed to beat. This team has the skill and ability to be in the playoffs, but the way this season is going at least one team that is good enough is going to miss out. The Quakes still have some massive games left, and all of those are against teams currently in playoff races. They are going to have to beat at least a couple of those teams if they expect to be playing in the postseason.
Are there any injuries or suspensions that will keep players unavailable for selection on Saturday, and what is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
OL: Nick Lima was subbed off in the 64th minute of their match against LAFC and wasn’t in the 18-man roster against Vancouver this past Wednesday, so he may be questionable. With the return of Anibal Godoy a couple of weeks ago, the roster is as full and as healthy as it can be at this point in the season. The most vital missing piece on Saturday is going to be the manager, Matias Almeyda, who is reportedly going to miss another match after being ejected from the Quakes’ 4-0 loss in Los Angeles. Shout out to Joel Soria for digging up that nugget of information.
Projected Lineup: Daniel Vega; Nick Lima, Floridan Jungwirth, Guram Kashia, Tommy Thompson; Judson, Jackson Yueill; Vako, Magnus Eriksson, Cristian Espinoza; Danny Hoesen.
Score prediction: Quakes win 2-1 to beat Orlando City for the first time in their history.
Thanks again to Oz for the great info on the Earthquakes.