There’s something different surrounding Avaya Stadium this year. For the first time since their return to Major League Soccer, there’s electricity and excitement surrounding the San Jose Earthquakes.
It’s a bit strange, considering the drop-off the team suffered last season – finishing in ninth place in the Western Conference in 2016, scoring a league-low 32 goals, seven worse than the MLS-worst Houston Dynamo. Injuries certainly played a role, however, with the lack of depth becoming noticeable as the club went through the second half of the season.
Unfortunately for the Quakes, 2016 represented a significant step backwards following a 2015 campaign where the Quakes fell just shy of the red line.
But with a new general manager in former Roma executive Jesse Fioranelli, there’s a renewed sense of urgency in what feels like a playoffs-or-bust atmosphere around the team. However, that doesn’t mean that the immediate goal is an MLS Cup title right away. Instead, the Quakes are looking for daily progress.
“With the mindset, I think the expectation is the playoffs and a deep playoff run,” new Homegrown signing Nick Lima said to SBI. “I think everyone is coming together. We’ve preached in the locker room, from the coach to the general manager, to everyone down that we’re in this together. So day by day – you’re not going to win an MLS cup overnight – if we get better by one percent each day, then that’s progress.”
Progress is what the Quakes thought they had after the 2015 campaign, and what they hope to find in 2017.
The Quakes have had a very solid preseason this year, showing the chemistry and aggressive attack that most thought was going to be there in 2016.
“It’s been pretty good,” head coach Dominic Kinnear told SBI. “We played some tough opponents. I think these USL, NASL teams are always tricky because you know exactly what you’re going to get. Overall, the preseason has been alright.”
However, Kinnear and the Quakes aren’t letting the current preseason success get to their heads.
“I’ve been a part of preseasons where you wipe the floor with everybody, and then you go into the year and things don’t go your way,” Kinnear said. “So the one thing you have to be mindful of is keeping guys healthy, keeping them fit, and getting them in the right frame of attack this season.”
Since Fioranelli’s arrival, the Quakes made a handful of international signings, the latest being midfielder Jahmir Hyka, who will make his Quakes debut in Saturday’s preseason finale against the Sacramento Republic.
“Good soccer player,” Kinnear said of Hyka. “Came as we thought he would. Smart on the ball, confident and wants it in tight spaces. He’s going to be a good player for us.”
Saturday’s friendly also marks the first time that the club has been together as a whole. Players have missed time due to international duty early on and the new signees took some time to join the club in training and preseason as they waited for their paperwork to clear through. How that will affect the team’s chemistry going into the first month of the season remains to be seen.
“We haven’t had the entire squad together yet in one place,” Kinnear said. “You’d love to have it earlier, but it’s happening.”
The last time the Quakes reached the playoffs in 2012, which also resulted in a Supporters’ Shield trophy, they wore black jerseys. They went back to black with this year’s new home jersey. Maybe a sign of things to come?
Here’s a closer look at the 2017 San Jose Earthquakes:
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES PREVIEW
2016 FINISH: 8-12-14 (9th in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Nick Lima, Harold Cummings, Jackson Yueill, Marco Urena, Danny Hoesen, Florian Jungwirth, Jahmir Hyka, Jesse Fioranelli
KEY LOSSES: Alberto Quintero, Clarence Goodson, Innocent,
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: Danny Hoesen, Nick Lima
Statistically, the Earthquakes had the worst attack in the league, putting more pressure on their backline keep them in games. Captain Chris Wondolowski started the year hot, however when he cooled off close to the midway point in the season and as the injury bug hit, nobody was able to step up to help on the attack. Enter Danny Hoesen, signed and tasked with the duty of supporting and adding to a Quakes attack that scored just 32 goals in all of 2016. The 26 year old forward has been prolific in his time with FC Groningen, scoring 11 goals in 57 appearances, aiding the team in capturing the KNVB Cup in 2015-15.
PRESSURE IS ON: Dominic Kinnear
With a new general manager taking the helm and as the club took a step backward in 2016, head coach Dominic Kinnear has to enter 2017 on the hot seat. He’s getting a chance under Fioranelli to guide this team back toward the right direction, however, if the Quakes miss out on the postseason for a fifth straight year or show signs of struggling midway through the campaign, the local legend could be shown the door.
Jesse Fioranelli took about a week to get settled into his new office at Avaya Stadium, then started fixing this roster, acquiring the likes of Urena, Hoesen, Jungwirth and Hyka. Toss in the youngsters Lima and Yueill and the question doesn’t become what the ceiling could be for this club, but rather whether all of these new pieces can mesh together and form an identity for what could be the first time in Kinnear’s managerial tenure.
San Jose addressed their needs throughout the roster during the offseason, adding much-needed youth along with some international experience and depth. With a handful of new signings starting to get settled in, there should be several new names in the starting XI for their March 4th opener against the Montreal Impact.
“There’s going to be some personnel changes,” Kinnear said after the team’s first day of preseason camp. “I think when you look back at the season, you see a few areas where you could improve and where we can definitely improve upon is to score the first goal.”
Questions remain, as they often do, about the chemistry of a heavily altered roster. With such significant additions, the way the players blend together and connect will be a huge driving force in whether 2017 looks more like the successful 2015, or the disappointing 2016.
While the team improved defensively, allowing only 40 goals, tied for 3rd-least goals allowed in the Western Conference, the attack has to create and take advantage of chances in the final third to take some pressure off of the backline.
“I think to get off on good starts, either home or on the road and not just get some pressure but get some chances to some goals,” Kinnear added. “I think playing with the lead gets some guys more focused. We played under pressure a lot which gets tiring after a while.”
With a decent defensive record already present, it’ll be on the offense to raise 2016’s paltry 32-goal total to new heights if the Quakes are to succeed in 2017. If their promising acquisitions can pan out into strong performances, the Quakes could compete for a low-end playoff spot. If they struggle to mesh together and take time to develop, it could be another long season below the red line in San Jose.