By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
San Jose made big strides in 2017 to go from the second worst team in the West to a playoff team. After adding more talent, and some youth, they’ll hope to build on that for 2018.
The 2017 San Jose Earthquakes ended the season with a -21 goal differential, the worst ever of any team to make the playoffs. But, they did make the playoffs, as the 6th seed in the West. And, after missing out every year since their Supporters’ Shield winning 2012, that was rightfully cause for celebration among Quakes fans, despite bowing out to the Whitecaps 5-0 in the knockout round.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest they were not in fact as bad as that bottomline metric makes it seem. For one, the teams expected goal difference was a perfectly average -2, and their TSR a perfectly average .51. They put up 13.7 shots per game, tenth best in the league, and allowed 13.2, 7th worst. On the whole, these are the numbers of a middle of the pack, knockout round team.
For 1st year GM Jesse Fioranelli, that should be considered solid progress. He rebuilt a lot of the squad, and brought in a number of pieces key to the team’s future: defensive mid/center back Florian Jungwirth, attacking mid Jahmir Hyka (who scored my favorite goal of 2017), winger/forward Danny Hoesen, and, in the summer, attacker Valeri Qazaishvili. Each will be expected to contribute heavily in 2018.
The biggest move Fioranelli made, though, was to fire head coach Dom Kinnear at the season’s midpoint. Kinnear, who was replaced with technical director Chris Leitch, had the team performing fine. They were in fifth in the West, and had just beaten Real Salt Lake when he was let go. The decision, rather, seemed one of style and philosophy over quality. The Quakes actually had a worse xGD under Leitch than Kinnear (+2 with Kinnear to -4 with Leitch), but they played much more openly, upping their shots from 12 per game to 15. Perhaps more importantly, Leitch had no hesitations about giving minutes to the team’s promising youths. Eternal hype train conductor Tommy Thompson made 10 of his 16 starts under Leitch, and played 2/3rds of his total minutes. Jackson Yueill played only 15 minutes with Kinnear, but 952 under Leitch.
The foundations Fioranelli and Leitch laid down in 2017 should provide a solid base on which to build for the coming year.
Leitch moved back to his role as technical director after the season, and in came Hacken (of the Swedish Allsvenskan) manager Mikael Stahre to helm the team. From what I’ve gleaned, Stahre seems to be an excellent defensive coach, with a proven ability to develop talent. The latter skill is self-evidently important to MLS. I think there’s a good case to make for the importance of the former, as well. The most consistently quality MLS defenses come from those coaches for whom it is a vital system - Jesse Marsch and his high press, Tata Martino and his, Peter Vermes and the high line. If Stahre can successfully implement his own system in San Jose, it will go a long way toward making the team sustainably competitive.
The centerpiece of the team’s winter signings was DP attacker Magnus Eriksson. Eriksson is coming off a season as the Allsvenskan’s leading goal scorer, and, at 27 years old, is firmly in his prime. Eriksson put up 3.2 shots per 90, which is a decent rate, but five of his goals came from penalties, and he actually overperformed his expected goals slightly (massive thanks to Zorba, whose coverage of the Allsvenskan is phenomenal). I wouldn't be surprised if he turns out to not be quite the goalscorer his 2017 numbers would suggest. His chance creation, though, was also excellent in 2017, and more in line with expectation (going by the same fantastic article linked above). Eriksson can do quite a bit of both scoring and chance creation, and he should be a key cog in the attack for 2018.
San Jose also signed three homegrowns to contracts this offseason: 16 year old midfielder Gilbert Fuentes (today is his birthday), 16 year old defender Jacob Akanyirige, and 20 year old goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski. These signings all signal an increased reliance on youth that looks like it will be crucial to the team’s strategy for the future.
None of the Quakes’ offseason losses can really be considered key, except, perhaps, that of Victor Bernardez. The center back mainstay of the last six seasons made 25 starts in 2017, but will be 36 in May, and looked a step slow at times.
Goalkeeper David Bingham was shipped to the Galaxy in December. While he started the first 23 games of the season, after falling out of favor he played in none of the last 11. Bingham showed some promise over his career, and saved the most goals above expected in the league in 2016, but in 2017 he made a number of shocking, highly visible errors, and on the whole was pretty average (33 goals allowed versus 32 xGA).
San Jose bought out DP Simon Dawkins’ contract last week, which, while not surprising given his production (9.0 xG + xA in two seasons), is surprising given the commitment in spending it signals from San Jose’s owners. That buyout comes out of the owners’ own pockets, and won’t count against the salary cap.
Forward Marco Urena was left unprotected by San Jose in the LAFC expansion draft, where he was taken third. Urena combined decent per 90 attacking numbers with a high defensive work rate, but given the team’s new additions he likely would have been surplus.
The word is Mikael Stahre prefers a 4-3-3, but in their past two preseason games the Quakes have come out in a 4-4-2 against USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC (though this at times played like a 4-3-3 and at times like a 4-2-3-1), and against the Galaxy.
Fioranelli and Leitch must've been confident in second year goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell to give him the reins over the more proven Bingham. They were rewarded, as he saved three more goals than expected in his 11 starts. Tarbell should continue to improve as the 2018 season goes on, and even as of now he’s a perfectly cromulent MLS keeper. Matt Bersano will likely back him up, with Marcinkowski being sent to Reno to get playing time.
San Jose’s defense has a few new pieces that will need to mesh well for a successful 2018. The one returning starter, standout rookie right back Nick Lima, should improve on his impressive 2017. An area he can make those improvements in is his distribution - Lima completed his passes across all parts of the field at rates slightly below expectation. Last season’s promising addition Harold Cummings will probably start at center back. He was set to start there last season before a broken leg in March prematurely ended his year. He was regarded as a quality signing at the time, and if he can stay healthy and regain his form he'll be a nice piece for the Quakes. The other starting center back will likely be Penarol loanee Yeferson Quintana. Quintana is only 21, but he got steady minutes with the Uruguayan superclub last season. The biggest question in defense is at left back. Shea Salinas has looked very unconvincing there the last two preseason games. Joel Qwiberg was brought in from Sweden, most likely to start, but it seems he may need an adjustment period before being MLS-ready. Still, if there’s an area on the field where it is okay to not be solid, it’s at fullback. Starting a fullback of only average MLS quality is not generally cause for concern.
San Jose, across the board, has been built with flexibility in mind. Many players can play many different positions. The team has solid depth at center back, with defensive mids Fatai Alashe and Florian Jungwirth able to play there if necessary. This will come in handy with Cummings possibly out for the World Cup. The team is, however, a bit thin at fullback.
Many questions exist regarding what the team’s best lineup looks like across the midfield. San Jose is pretty deep there, and thus, those are good questions to have. If Jungwirth does not start at center back, he is an excellent defensive mid, but he doesn’t provide much in the attack. Anibal Godoy gives the team a bit more going forward and in possession, and he passed the ball in the midfield with a completion percentage four points higher than expected in 2017, but he isn’t as defensively stout as Jungwirth. Playing next to the DM, Jackson Yueill is on his way to becoming an excellent deep lying playmaker. At .24 xG + xA per 90, the rookie already put up numbers close to Haris Medunjanin and Kellyn Acosta. With an improved offense to work with, those stats should tick up.
Stahre has a wealth of options on the attacking side of the ball, as well. I’ve already covered Eriksson, who should start. On the wings will likely be Vako Qazaishvili and Jahmir Hyka. Vako put up 4.5 shots per 90 (the highest on the team), on .45 xG per 90. That makes his shot quality about average, which is pretty good given the quantity (typically with more shots average quality will decline - think of it as an efficiency-usage tradeoff). He’s also excellent in the final third - he completed his passes there nine percentage points higher than expected. Hyka, meanwhile, created the most expected assists on the team, at .28 per 90, which puts him in the company of Albert Rusnak, Michael Barrios, and Kelyn Rowe.
Tommy Thompson should be the first man off the bench there, and he is a good option. After three seasons of soccer-nerd hype, Thompson finally got substantial minutes in 2017, making 16 starts in 32 appearances, but his numbers were merely solid. One area he’ll want to work on is his shot discipline - his average shot was worth just 0.06 xG last season.
The big question on the forward line is, does Chris Wondolowski or Danny Hoesen start? To be fair, in some lineups there is certainly room for both. Wondo can play as a withdrawn striker, as he occasionally did in 2017, with Hoesen up top. This gives San Jose some interesting offensive rotations, but it also sacrifices a little bit of defense in the center of the park. Stahre probably wants Godoy and Jungwirth in behind that front four, which means pulling Yueill off the field.
At this point, everyone (except opposing defenders, seemingly) knows what Wondo brings to the table: he’s a clever forward who gets a couple high quality chances per game by slipping behind the defense into the right spots. Hoesen, though he got minutes as a winger last year, is much more of a traditional center forward. He should benefit from playing closer to goal in 2018.
Given all the offseason moves made across the conference, the West is pretty up in the air, and I’m personally finding it hard to rate teams without much prior knowledge of the players that are coming in. That said, I think San Jose has really positioned themselves nicely. They kept around the core of last year’s squad but added key pieces in the necessary places. If Stahre can work his defensive magic, the team will be in really good shape, and should be fun to watch. I’m not sure I see San Jose getting a first round bye, but I think they can be in good contention for a home knockout round game. The team’s floor could fall far if Stahre has trouble adjusting to the new league, but, while I’m not certain they’ll end up in the playoffs, I can’t imagine them playing themselves out of the hunt altogether.