The San Jose Earthquakes in more ways than one were emblematic of the hectic year that was 2020.
Things started well for the Earthquakes with a run to the quarterfinals in the MLS is Back Tournament before going on a torrid run of form during the second half of the season and sneaking into the playoffs, but falling to Sporting Kansas City on penalties in the first round.
Ups and downs aside, the Quakes come into 2021 with optimism that finding consistency is the key to unlocking their potential.
“We fixed a few things towards the end of the season and were able to find consistency,” midfielder Jackson Yueill told SBI. “I think last year’s condensed schedule made it difficult, but I think the guys handled that well and we’re going to try to keep it going into this year.”
At times last season the Quakes showed what they were capable of under head coach Matias Almeyda, and their hectic 4-3 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps stands out as one of their best showings of the season
“In general a lot of our goals come in the last minutes, but it was a great push by Shea in that game and it all starts from him and Wondolowski and their mentality to keep pushing and win games as it gets harder and harder.”
Under Almeyda the Quakes are arguably the most unique team in the MLS, deploying a man-marking system centered around creating as much controlled chaos as possible in 90 minutes.
Last season was their second under Almeyda and though the consistency was not there, making the playoffs was a clear step forward after being one of the worst teams in the West when Almeyda inherited the team at the end of 2019
There was also the elephant in the room that last year was going to be the final season for MLS leading scorer and club legend Chris Wondolowski. The 38-year-old striker signed a one-year contract to return for another season, but Yueill is not convinced that Wondolowski will be a victim of father time just yet.
“I expect him to play after this one as well,” Yueill said. “He’s such a good leader, he brings a competitive edge to him that the team really needs.”
Even if it is the final season for Wondolowski, Yueill believes the expectations should be very high coming into this year.
“We want to win the Supporters’ Shield and I think that kind of comes back to our consistency,” Yueill said. “Something to improve on is trying to maintain a high level through the whole season” said Yueill.
Here is a closer look at the 2021 San Jose Earthquakes:
2021 San Jose Earthquakes Season Preview
2020 Finish: 8th in West (8-9-6, 30 points, lost in Western Conference first round.)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Eduardo “Chofis” Lopez, Eric Remedi, Luciano Abecasis
KEY LOSSES: Nick Lima, Danny Hoesen
Newcomer to Watch: Eduardo ‘La Chofis’ Lopez
One of the big flaws of the Earthquakes last season was at the number 10 position after Magnus Eriksson departed midseason, joining Djurgårdens IF in Sweden.
To address the loss of a designated player and one of the most important attacking pieces, Chivas midfielder Eduardo Lopez has been brought in on loan and is a familiar face from Almeyda’s time in Mexico.
Lopez comes to MLS after stagnating for Chivas last season but he is hoping to regain the form he found under Almeyda when the Argentinian manager led Lopez and Chivas to a CONCACAF Champions League title in 2018.
Lopez is not a total game changer that will single handedly lead the Quakes deep into the playoffs, but he knows is exactly what will be asked of him under Almeyda and is be able to step in and contribute right away.
Pressure is on: J.T. Marcinkowski
Signed as a homegrown player in 2017, JT Marcinkowski got his first real chance as a starter at the end of last season and the Quakes completely turned their season around with the 23 year-old in net.
That is not to say Marcinkowski was the sole reason for the turn around to end the season, but it is worth noting that the Quakes earned 20 points with the young American between the posts compared to 10 when Daniel Vega was the starter.
It is also worth noting that Vega is 36 years old and at some point Almeyda will need to see if Marcinkowski is really the answer at the position.
Marcinkowski has all the tools to develop into one of the better backstops in the league, he is a good athlete and is comfortable with the ball at his feet despite having very little first team experience. As a testament to his talent level, he has been called into the United States Senior Men’s National team and was part of the U.S. U-23 Olympic Qualifying campaign in May as the back-up behind David Ochoa of Real Salt Lake.
The acquisition of Lopez on loan was the big move in the offseason and he is part of a targeted effort to sign players with experience playing under Almeyda. Midfielder Eric Remedi, 25, was signed from Atlanta United and right-back Luciano Abecasis, 30 joins as a depth piece on a one year deal from River Plate.
Remedi was given his first team debut under Almeyda for CA Banfield in Argentina and is expected to compete for minutes in the center of the midfield. Abecasis is a 30 year-old right back who played under Almeyda at River Plate and provides defensive cover on the right side after utility defender Nick Lima was traded to expansion side Austin FC.
To replace Lima, the Quakes are entrusting Peruvian national team defender Marcos Lopez to hold down the left back position after he came on strong in his second MLS season and made Lima an expendable piece.
Defensively, there are still question marks for a team that gave up a league-high 51 goals last season, but because of the hectic press that calls on every player to be active in defense, last season’s struggles are not solely on the back-line.
To minimize the amount of goals conceded, adding three proven players allows for more rotation in the starting lineup and the coaching staff has made a concentrated effort in the preseason to start matches on the front foot and to relieve defense pressure early on.
“There has been a real emphasis on preseason, and guys coming in fit so we are ready to go from day one because everyone knows how strenuous the season is because of our style of play,” Yueill said.
In the build up, it is all centered around Yueill as the fulcrum in distribution alongside his more defensive counterpart Judson in the double pivot. Yueill, 24, is firmly on the United States Men’s National team radar and played a pivotal role in their failed Olympic Qualifying campaign, but he is eager to show that he is capable of being more than just deep-lying, ball playing defensive midfielder.
“Five goals, five assists. I’m hoping for more, but just being more involved in the attack” said Yueill. “I want to get on the scoreboard every game or an assist every other game and just do everything I can to help the team win.”
Cristian Espinoza and Carlos Fierro will once again lead the attack on the wings, but 17 year-old homegrown talent Cade Cowell is an exceptional prospect that will push for playing time.
“He’s a monster and he keeps getting better and better,” said Yueill. “You can see from the offseason that he’s worked on being more decisive and I think he’s gonna be really, really crucial for us this year. I hope he scores many goals.”
The Cowell hype train has already gained a fair amount of steam in the preseason, with the talented winger scoring four goals in the preseason and the winning goal in a friendly against USL expansion side Oakland Roots on April 9.
Up top, it is still the Chris Wondolowski show, but at 38, Almeyda will need to manage his minutes wisely so the Quakes can get the most out of the league’s all-time leading scorer come playoffs.
That leaves Andy Rios as a player who will be expected to lead the line at times throughout the season and the Quakes are hoping he will increase his goal-scoring total of six from last season.
At their best under Almeyda the Quakes have a playing style allows them to compete with any team in MLS, but managing their ups and downs will be the deciding factor that separates them from a good team, to an MLS Cup contender in the West.
“Maintaining that high level throughout the season is tough,” Yueill said. “But we want to win MLS Cup and if we make it to the playoffs, we think we’re a team that has a chance to make it to the final”.
San Jose Earthquakes Roster
Goalkeepers: Matt Bersano, JT Marcinkowski, Emmanuel Ochoa, Daniel Vega
Defenders: Luciano Abecasis, Jacob Akanyirige, Oswaldo Alanis, Tanner Beason, Florian Jungwirth, Marcos Lopez, Paul Marie, Tommy Thompson, Casey Walls
Midfielders: Eric Calvillo, Cristian Espinoza, Carlos Fierro, Gilbert Fuentes, Siad Haji, Judson, Javier Lopez, Eric Remedi, Shea Salinas, Jack Skahan, Jackson Yueill
Forwards: Chris Wondolowski, Cade Cowell, Andy Rios