By Jamon Moore (@jmoorequakes)
2018 In Review
The “wooden spoon” award has its roots in the University of Cambridge. It would be awarded to the student who had the lowest marks but still earned a third-class degree. There are also three degrees in MLS: Those who win silverware, those who make the playoffs, and those who do not make the playoffs. Given MLS does not have relegation, obtaining (I almost said “winning” there) the Wooden Spoon just means one still gets to play the next year at the same level. In 2017, the Independent Supporters Council, who instituted the Wooden Spoon award in 2015, renamed it the Anthony Precourt Memorial Wooden Spoon.
This is not the trophy San Jose Earthquakes General Manager Jesse Fioranelli had in mind at the beginning of 2018. He attempted big splashes, signing Allsvenskan Golden Boot winner Magnus Eriksson as a designated player, a fellow Swede to go along with a “real” manager Mikael Stahre (replacing not-interim/interim first-time coach Chris Leitch), also from the Allsvenskan. In keeping the attacking core from 2017 who helped the team snatch the final playoff spot despite a -21 goal differential, plus adding Eriksson, finally getting Panamanian international Harold Cummings healthy, and adding two more young defenders, Fioranelli bet that would be enough to catapult San Jose higher in the Western Conference. It seems he underestimated the MLS talent level compared to middle-of-the-road European leagues and the ability of a foreign coach to quickly integrate a team.
The 2018 Earthquakes scored their most goals since their last silverware-winning year, 2012 (47), adding 70 shots and eight goals above 2017. However, the defense was in complete disarray. Shea Salinas’ transition from left midfielder to left back was not working out, and Joel Qwiberg, who was signed on to replace him, found himself not even getting games in USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC. Cummings came in 10 pounds too heavy and took half a season to get his weight addressed before sustaining another injury, and Yeferson Quintana from Peñarol was a bust. Despite multiple underperforming defensive signings from Europe, Fioranelli went back mid-season to that pool, getting the nationally-beloved-but-slow-on-counters Georgian centerback Guram Kashia from Vitesse Arnhem of the Dutch Eredivisie. After a brief improvement along with the addition of defensive midfielder Luis Felipe Fernandes from Reno, the Quakes defense gave up the ghost, Stahre was fired, and assistant coach Steve Ralston saw out the season while #PlayTheKids went into full motion. Despite scoring more six more goals and giving up three fewer than Orlando City, the Earthquakes finished with the Anthony Precourt Memorial Wooden Spoon by seven points and tied for the seventh-fewest points in MLS history with the 2009 New York Red Bulls with 21. San Jose had only four wins – including only two wins at home – and all four wins came against Minnesota United and FC Dallas.
The Earthquakes dropped a difference of 18 points from winning positions versus what they won from losing positions. The league average difference was 3.25 dropped. 15 more points would have moved the Earthquakes from last to…well, tied for 10th with Minnesota United. But a few more home wins would have made the season more tolerable.
In what might be one final chance from the Earthquakes front office, Fioranelli had a master-stroke and went out and hired Matias Almeyda before the season even ended. The Argentinian and former River Plate and Chivas Guadalajara manager, along with his full set of assistants, has a thing for turnaround projects. Almeyda saved both of the aforementioned clubs from relegation and helped restore them to glory, including winning the Concacaf Champions League final against Toronto FC in 2018. Doubtless he sees San Jose as a project while he waits to see what happens with former Atlanta United manager, Tata Martino, as the head of El Tri. In Mexico, Chivas is known for only using Mexican players and would not sign Almeyda’s transfer targets. Purportedly, this is the main reason for Almeyda’s split from the club. From the Chivas frying pan and into the frugal San Jose fire, he has already stated in interviews given in Spanish that he was unable to get the Liga MX players he wanted for this season.
Instead, Almeyda, with a few cheaper-than-Liga MX acquisitions at left back, defensive midfielder, and right midfielder will be asked to “coach ‘em up” and get San Jose back to some level of respectability.
Outgoing Players (from mlssoccer.com)
D - Yeferson Quintana (11/29/18 - option declined)
DM - Jahmir Hyka (11/29/18 - option declined)
M - Chris Wehan (11/29/18 - option declined)
F - Danny Musovski (11/29/18 - option declined)
F - Mohamed Thiaw (11/29/18 - option declined)
F - Dominic Oduro (11/29/18 - out of contract)
The problem with this list is it isn’t nearly enough for a last-place team. Quintana did not even play in the second half of the season. Jahmir Hyka, a fan favorite, known as the “FC Dallas killer” scored three goals, but simply was not effective making the Quakes more dangerous in the final third, opting to go backwards more often than not. Dominic Oduro came in a trade with Montreal for Quincy Amarikwa and barely saw the pitch. Chris Wehan, who was the Rookie of the Year in USL in 2017, saw some field time but didn’t make a tangible impact in any appearance.
Others who likely should have been on this list include: Andrew Tarbell, who, despite being known as a shotstopper, had the worst G-xG in the league; Paul Marie, whose option was picked up even though he didn’t feature much in Reno apparently due to injuries; backup goalkeeper Matt Bersano, who has been amazing in USL but can’t even get on the pitch for an Open Cup game; Qwiberg for obvious reasons; and Cummings who, outside of a couple games, hasn’t shown anyone he’s the beast he appears to be up close.
There’s a big question mark around Eriksson, whom Djurgårdens IF sports manager Bosse Andersson has said he wants to bring home. Rumors abounded that he and the Earthquakes were looking to deal him or loan him out. Given the departure of Stahre, Eriksson may to want to get back to Sweden as soon as possible. Colin Etnire of Quakes Epicenter has estimated a cap hit of $400K for Eriksson in his excellent salary spreadsheet, believing his transfer fee was paid off with Discretionary TAM last year in order to make the team salary cap compliant. Or maybe it wasn’t we really don’t know for sure.
Given earlier public and rumored locker room comments by Florian Jungwirth, it’s somewhat surprising his option was picked up, especially considering it’s not clear if he will be playing his preferred defensive midfielder spot as he did for most of 2018 or will be moving back to his 2017 spot of centerback. If he has gotten his head right as he says he has, his estimated $150K cap hit is a good deal given he’s probably the first player on if anyone is injured in those positions.
M - Judson (12/20/18 - loan from Tombense)
F - Cristian Espinoza (1/2/19 - loan from Villarreal)
D - Marcos López (1/6/19 - transfer from Sporting Cristal)
M - Siad Haji (1/11/19 - SuperDraft)
GK - Daniel Vega (1/18/19 - free)
F - Cade Cowell (1/23/19 - Homegrown)
Not only did the Quakes not get rid of enough baggage, they didn’t sign anyone of significant note in the winter. Judson, a Brazilian second-division central midfielder who is known for shutting down counter-attacks, may be their best pickup. Second division in Brazil is still a top league in South America, and, by all accounts, he will provide good quality where the Quakes have been lacking as a true 6.
Christian Espinoza will give San Jose the pace on the right wing they lack with Eriksson. Not known as a goal scorer, but instead providing decent service into the box, San Jose will hope Espinoza will show the abilities Villarreal thought they were getting when they signed him.
Marco López might be the most intriguing pick-up. The Peruvian media was abuzz when it became known the Quakes might have gotten him for a transfer fee song from Sporting Cristal due to a wrinkle in their older contracts. A 19-year-old, the Earthquakes have touted López as the best young player in Peru and recently received a call-up to the senior team. López looks to plug the hole the Quakes have had at left back since the departure of Justin Morrow after the 2013 season.
MLS SuperDraft 2nd-overall draft pick, Said Haji, has looked promising so far in preseason but is likely headed to Reno as is new 15-year-old homegrown Cade Cowell. Daniel Vega at age 34 adds a veteran keeper presence, however he’s never played above second division in the US. He doesn’t seem to be the keeper the Quakes need to fully replace Andrew Tarbell. Word is the goalkeepers Almeyda was eyeing didn’t come through, and he will rely on his famous goalkeeper coach Carlos Roa, who shares the role for first team, Reno 1868, and academy with Jyri Nieminen (hired by Stahre), to get the most out of the keeper corp.
Look for Judson, Espinoza and López to all break into the opening game starting XI.
Honestly, who knows? The Earthquakes have four goalkeepers with all very similar shotstopping ability. JT Marcinkowski has been praised for his footwork by Reno 1868 coach Ian Russell as well as others, but seems to be behind Vega for the starting job, and is probably again behind Tarbell if preseason games are any indication. It’s unclear why the Quakes have kept both Tarbell and Bersano, as the situation is likely to require they either split time in Reno (less likely), or Marcinkowsi and Bersano will (more likely). Vega looks to have the opening day edge based on preseason lineups.
Despite public comments to the contrary, the San Jose defense was not worse than Orlando City (who set the all-time mark with 74 goals given up, while San Jose merely tied Minnesota United for the second-worst in MLS history with 71) in 2018. With left back presumably shored up with López, Almeyda will look to Kashia and recent USMNT breakout star Nick Lima to help the back line significantly improve on 2018. If Cummings can’t get the job done, undoubtedly Jungwirth will be asked to take over, but centerback remains a significant area of concern in a league with more speed than ever before.
The chart below shows MLS counters against in 2018 with goals in black.
As you can see, San Jose gave up more goals on counters than they should have based on Expected Goals (xG), but again not as many as Orlando or even Colorado.
San Jose also has trouble defending skilled players, particularly in the half spaces:
Here are just some of the skilled players that scored on the Earthquakes last season in the run-of-play:
Cristian Techera (twice)
Felipe Gutierrez (twice)
Gerso Fernandes (twice)
Kevin Molino (twice)
Mauro Manotas (twice)
Raul Ruidiaz (thrice)
Samuel Armenteros (twice)
Sure, Nick Lima is a bright spot (two goals, two assists, 5.2 xG+xA, 27 key passes). He was involved in the most possessions (972) and had the most touches on the team in 2018. Hopefully Almeyda was paying attention to how Gregg Berhalter used Lima in a more central role in the recent USMNT games against Panama and Costa Rica. This could allow the Quakes to put another midfielder higher up the pitch if Lima took some of the midfield responsibility. Regardless, as a former forward with some defensive midfielder experience in college, Lima is better in the attack from a central position than on the wings. As you can see below, Lima is 16th in the league in total crosses.
However, of this group, he has a very low crossing success rate at 18%.
The Quakes will need more productivity out of Lima if they are to improve in the attack, given the number of touches he gets. By giving Lima more license to come central, they should be able to squeeze more than two goals and two assists out of him in 2018.
Additional depth is available in Qwiberg, Salinas, Marie, Kevin Partida (who is more experienced as a defensive midfielder but was used as an outside back last season), Jimmy Ockford (signed from Reno in 2018) and Francois Affolter from Switzerland. Almeyda is more than likely hoping he doesn’t have to use this depth very often. Ideally, Almeyda will find a way to move Salinas back to an outside midfielder role where he could be an asset as a presser, but that is currently a very crowded space for playing time.
The top complaint offensively with San Jose is they lack the ability to connect their back line to their front line through their midfield. It seems like it has been several years since there was cohesion and a plan in the attack. Dominic Kinnear previously organized his Earthquakes teams well defensively, but the attack plan circa 2015-2016 was boot it up the pitch, have the wingers chase it down, and get it to Chris Wondolowski somehow. Given the Quakes have had no pace on the pitch outside of their outside backs, the new strategy has been kick it long to Danny Hoesen. So long as Christian Espinoza is on the right instead of Magnus Eriksson (six goals including three penalties, three assists, 12 xG+xA, 61 key passes), expect more attacking down the right wing along with Lima. The addition of Judson is expected to shore up some central defending and provide the ability to shut down attacks from the wings when the wingers and outside backs get caught up the pitch, but don’t expect him to facilitate the flow on offense. Anibal Godoy (12.1% of touches) is a ball-winning central midfielder who everyone also looks to once they have won the ball to make the safe pass and start the attack. If Almeyda wants to play through the middle, he’s going to have to take off a forward and play a 4-2-3-1 like he mostly did at Chivas. The Earthquakes don’t have a true 10 -- Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili (10 goals, four assists, 14.6 xG+xA, 54 key passes) and Eriksson could both moonlight in a hybrid 8/10 role depending on who Almeyda wants on the wing – it’s been Vako on the left wing in preseason. A true 10 should be a key area to address in the summer window. The biggest question marks are how Tommy Thompson, Luis Felipe Fernandes, Jackson Yueill and Eric Cavillo can get their minutes with Vako, Eriksson and Godoy on the pitch. The most promising youngster, Gilbert Fuentes, is still 16 years old and touched the pitch for a few minutes in the final game of the 2018 season. It’s difficult to envision the Earthquakes, another year older, improving much at all without some dynamic play from their younger players who showed some creativity, if not a final ball, in the last few games under Ralston. All the more reason Jungwirth should be heading back to central defense – he’s not even in the top three central midfielders on this team at this point.
Almeyda is fond of pressing hard and winning the ball higher up the pitch using a man-to-man scheme that he will expect to produce chaotic play with outcomes similar to what the Red Bulls (who are good at it) and the Revolution (who are not good at it so far) try to get in their schemes. This could work well given the Earthquakes lack the central midfield players needed to hold onto the ball for very long. However, Stahre struggled beyond the first Minnesota United game implementing a pressing scheme with many of the same players. In fact, when using the Passes per Defensive Action metric and the expected passing (xPass) metric from ASA, San Jose was the lowest defensive pressure team in the league last season and won a high percentage of their possessions in their defending third in even game states.
Almeyda’s biggest challenge in implementing his scheme will be to get Vako and Godoy, both perceived as lazy defenders by Earthquakes fans, and Eriksson who completely lacks pace, to play in a high-pace defensive game and get forward quickly on turnovers.
With only two goals to go – regardless if San Jose can get out of the basement – this is certainly the year forever-young Chris Wondolowski (10 goals, five assists on 14.2 xG+xA), now 36, finally breaks Landon Donovan’s 144 total MLS goals record. There’s not much left to be said, but the sooner it happens the better for Wondo and the team. The players spent the last couple games of 2018 trying to get Wondo another goal and passed up shots they should have taken to do so. The Earthquakes can’t afford to be slow out of the blocks in the season because players are looking for Wondolowski.
All things considered, Danny Hoesen had a fantastic 2018 (12 goals on 9.8 xG, three assists on 3.5 xA). There were times when he was able to create something out of nothing and keep the Quakes in games they might not have otherwise been able to stay in. If Hoesen can get better service out of his attackers whether through the middle or from the sides, and San Jose can win balls higher up the pitch and get Hoesen on more of them, he could have an even better year in 2019.
The only other forwards listed for San Jose are 15-year-old homegrown Cade Cowell, and Christian Espinoza who is better suited for and has been playing right wing/midfield in preseason. Both Vako and Eriksson can play a second forward underneath either Hoesen or Wondo when the time calls for it.
The biggest question for the forwards will be whether Almeyda will continue Stahre’s practice of starting Hoesen and using Wondo as a substitute and play a 4-2-3-1, alternate the two, or find a way to get both on the pitch at the expense of a midfielder.
Expectations for 2019
Fortunately for the Earthquakes, there’s an additional playoff spot in 2019 without adding another team to the Western Conference. Given the current roster construction, the best case scenario is that Almeyda has the Quakes in great physical shape and flying out of the blocks pressing the heck out of everyone to get a couple early wins. If San Jose can hang between 5th and 9th place until the summer window, it could give them a chance to get the central pressing player that can double as a 10 that Almeyda desires, along with a faster, more physical centerback.
The focus needs to be winning at home and getting some results in enough road games to put themselves in playoff contention. Any place other than last is an improvement, and most San Jose fans who are realistic about the roster would settle for finishing above the LA Galaxy.
At least then the team wouldn’t need a Anthony Precourt Memorial Wooden Spoon bonfire in the offseason.