Editorial, February 28, 2018 – The San Jose Earthquakes start their 2018 campaign on March 3rd against Minnesota United, and Quakes fans will have to get used to a lot of new faces in this retooled Earthquakes side.
Last season, San Jose squeaked into the playoffs thanks to a stoppage-time winner by the now departed Marco Ureña against Minnesota on Decision Day. They then promptly exited the postseason with a 5-0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
This off-season, general manager Jesse Fioranelli went to work, trying to bring in the talent and the knowledge capable of taking the Quakes to the next level and turn the team into a title contender this season. From coaching to the field, this Earthquakes team, on paper, looks miles better than last season.
San Jose Earthquakes 2018 Season Preview: Can Off-Season Upgrades Lead to Success?
The biggest change made by Fioranelli this off-season was moving coach Chris Leitch back to his natural realm of youth player development and bringing in Swedish head man Mikael Stahre to lead the team.
Fioranelli correctly saw that Leitch, who replaced previous head coach Dominic Kinnear midway through the season, was not one of the catalysts in the Earthquakes earning a playoff berth. With no experience whatsoever in coaching, Leitch’s management style was more often a detriment to the team than an addition. In the interim he was serviceable, but he was not the long-term answer at head coach for the team.
Stahre, meanwhile, brings experience in spades from the Swedish top flight, and has a proven track record of success, which we detailed here when he was signed. Stahre’s biggest challenge will be to improve the team’s defensive scheme, which fortunately for the Quakes is one of his strong suits.
“Stahre has joked that he won’t wow you with his tactics,” said Earthquakes radio announcer Ted Ramey. “He likes to focus on playing a sound game fundamentally. You can expect the Quakes to play calmly but aggressively this season.”
With team captain and former league MVP Chris Wondolowski poised to break Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring record this season, Fioranelli could have continued relying on Wondo to act as a talisman, generating almost all of the team’s offense, as the striker has done so often in the past.
However, with Wondo hitting 34 years old this season, Fioranelli wisely began preparing this team for life after the Quakes legend is done putting up double-digit goals every season (he currently has a league record eight consecutive 10 goal seasons).
First, Fioranelli made a point to lock up Danny Hoesen to a long-term deal. After a very successful year on loan from FC Groningen (eight goals across all competitions), Fioranelli inked the Dutch striker to a permanent deal as an Earthquake. Hoesen possesses the talent and creativity up top to generate offense with or without Wondo, giving the Quakes a much needed additional offensive weapon.
San Jose wasn’t done there, as Fioranelli bolstered the attack even further by bringing in Swedish striker Magnus Eriksson. A familiar favorite of Stahre, Eriksson is capable of playing up top or out on the wing and will give the Earthquakes a significant weapon out wide to add a new dimension to their attacking play.
“The team has a lot more of a clear-cut identity offensively this season,” said Ramey. “In the preseason we have seen them pushing things much wider. With Vako and Eriksson on the wings, they are developing great chemistry with Nick Lima and Shea Salinas. Don’t be surprised to see Hoesen, Wondo, Eriksson, and Vako all in the box at once, which I think will wreak havoc on opposing defenses.”
Biggest Question Mark
San Jose’s biggest question mark this year will undoubtedly be the back line. A weakness a season ago, Fioranelli worked to upgrade his defense during the off-season. The results remain to be seen.
Gone is the aging veteran and stalwart Victor Bernardez, whose age and lack of speed caught up with him multiple times last season. Homegrown player Nick Lima will hopefully be healthy, following a rookie year that was brought down by injuries but still contained plenty of promise. If healthy, Lima is capable of growing into one of the top right backs in the league. Shea Salinas appears set to return at left back, a position he began playing last year, after six seasons in a midfield role in San Jose.
“For me, the issue with goals allowed last year came more from lack of depth and a poor defensive scheme once Dom left,” said Earthquakes reporter Colin Etnire. “Jesse added depth at center back and left back, and brought in a coach in Stahre who knows how to marshal a solid defense.”
Fioranelli certainly appears to have fixed both the issues of depth and scheme. Replacing Bernardez is Harold Cummings, who was signed last year but broke his leg in an accident at home, causing him to miss the entire season.
“Cummings looked like an absolute monster in the preseason last year,” said Ramey. “He wants to prove he can make Panama’s World Cup squad.”
Joining Cummings will be new off-season signing Yeferson Quintana, who frees Florian Jungwirth to return to his more natural role of a deep defensive midfielder, giving San Jose an impressive five-man back line.
“One of the Quakes biggest issues last year was defending set pieces. Quintana and Cummings are big, imposing center backs who will greatly improve the team’s set-piece defense. They are going to be asked to make attackers uncomfortable in the box, which is what they do best,” said Ramey.
National pundits are not counting on San Jose to do much this season, which may be a significant underestimation of what this team is capable of. This is not the side that narrowly snuck into the playoffs last season, only to exit quickly and with a thud.
The Quakes are significantly improved and could have a chance to make some real noise around the league in 2018. They have a higher talent base, a strong coach, and significantly greater depth across the roster.
While the overall talent level might not be enough to win the Supporters Shield, another Open Cup run and even a potential first-round playoff bye are not off the table for this year’s Earthquakes squad.