The Quakes charged straight ahead into the 2021 season, eyes locked on the prize.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
Yeah, it ended up going poorly. They weren’t able to build any momentum from last year’s push into the playoffs and super credible showing at Kansas City, the new signings mostly underdelivered, a few veterans underperformed, and the kids made progress only in fits and starts.
That’s not good enough for a team attempting to compete on a budget. And so for the second time in three years under Matias Almeyda, there’d be no postseason in San Jose.
Formation and tactics
For the first half of the year it was usually a 4-2-3-1 with the familiar man-marking approach that Almeyda has preferred at every stop of his coaching tenure, and throughout his time in charge of the Quakes.
By mid-May, though, it was clear that the book was out – there was no longer a built-in advantage to man-marking because there was no more shock value in it anymore. Teams had played against it too much and there was too much film of it to pick apart, and so the Quakes started getting pummeled. Badly.
It got to the point that Almeyda, in mid-summer, finally had to have his guys back off and go into a zonal defensive scheme. Sometimes that’d be with three at the back but more often it’d be in a 4-2-3-1, and while the upside was that the defensive bleeding stopped (or slowed, at least), the downside was that so did most of San Jose’s attacking verve.
They were definitely a more effective team on the back nine, but were nowhere near as fun to watch.
The very best part of San Jose’s season was the start of it, as they rebounded from a First Kick loss at Houston to string together a three-game winning streak during which they scored nine goals. The biggest of those wins was 4-1 over D.C. United and the most potentially consequential was the 2-1 win at RSL, but the most memorable was the 3-1 home win over FC Dallas, which served as young Cade Cowell’s coming out party.
One goal and one assist for the kid, but my god I can still not get over this pass:
That’s one of the two or three best passes of the season from anyone. Nobody who’d watched Cowell play in the youth ranks thought he had anything approaching that kind of vision or ability to weight a pass, but there it was – a tantalizing hint of his ultimate potential.
There was also the late-summer surge from Eduardo “Chofis” Lopez, which included a handful of Messi-esque golazos and the hint of a playoff push, but that was for naught.
Immediately following that early three-match winning streak San Jose started tripping on rakes. First it was a 1-0 home loss to the Sounders, and then 2-0 to the Timbers, and then 3-1 to Sporting KC. Just like that, nearly a third of San Jose’s home slate was in the books and they’d only managed six points from it.
Things, though, got worse. They lost again at LA, then drew, then lost some more, and then drew some more, and then by the time it was all said and done they’d authored an 11-game, two-and-a-half month winless skid.
The worst of it on the scoreboard was the 5-0 loss at Orlando City, but the worst in terms of what it actually meant was the 3-1 home loss to the Galaxy at the end of June. This used to be a date you’d circle on the calendar because you knew that no matter how down bad the Quakes were, they’d come out with fire in their eyes and put on a damn show.
But they barely showed up. It was dispiriting.
Cowell’s passing vision surely counts as a revelation here, even if his productivity faded badly over the second half of the season (during most of which he was 17 years old, remember). Benji Kikanovic’s play has been damn near revelatory, and he has likely played himself into a long-term deal. There is also the hugely underrated play of Homegrown goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski, one of the league’s best sweeper-keepers.
But the answer is actually second-year center back Tanner Beason, whose on-off splits were superb. As of this writing the Quakes were 7-5-9 (1.4 ppg) and conceded 1.3 goals per 90 when he’s played. When he doesn’t, they’re 2-7-1 (0.7 ppg) and they concede 2.0 goals per 90.
There are better, more involved metrics than simple on/off splits out there, but no matter how far down the rabbit hole you go, you end up reaching the same conclusion: Beason is, at the very least, a starting-caliber center back, and is quite likely much more than that.
The Quakes finally broke that 11-game winless skid in late July. A week later, with Chris Leitch as interim GM, they did something unexpected – they swung for the fences with a big in-season trade, landing Portland attacker Jeremy Ebobisse for a boatload of allocation cash.
It was a ballsy move from Leitch, who’s still the interim GM. And I’m going to argue that it was the right move, because over the next four games – the last of which was a 2-1 revenge game win at the Galaxy – San Jose played probably their most complete soccer of the season, using Ebobisse as a true target forward who’d both threaten in the 18 and, more importantly, link play. They went 2-0-2, were controlling games with the ball and were starting to hum.
Then, not even five minutes into Ebobisse’s fifth game with the Quakes, Colorado’s Lalas Abubakar plowed into his back. It was a violent and utterly needless challenge, and both guys had to be subbed with head injuries.
Ebobisse would miss more than a month. San Jose went 2-4-1 in his absence, falling from the seventh spot in the West to 10th.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Ebobisse (CF): He hasn’t set the world aflame for San Jose, but he’s a double-digit scorer in his prime who makes the game easier for the attackers around him.
- Cowell (W/F): Is he a winger or a forward? Truth is he’s not complete enough for either spot just yet, and this offseason has to be geared toward pointing him at one or the other long-term (I vote “winger” for what it’s worth).
- Judson (DM): One of the strangest things about Almeyda is that he doesn’t seem to rate the Brazilian ball-winner. He’d be the first name on the team sheet if I was calling the shots for San Jose.
- Beason (CB): He’s 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, good on the ground, good in the air and left-footed. He also defends on the front foot. There aren’t a lot of guys who check all those boxes.
- Marcinkowski (GK): One of the five or six best ‘keepers in MLS this year, and very much a modern ‘keeper who helps quite a bit in building from the back.
They’ve got to figure out if Leitch is the full-time guy or not, and then they’ll have to figure out Almeyda. He’s got one year left on his deal and, given some quotes in Spanish language press, he’s no longer entirely happy with the situation in San Jose. And given the scattershot nature of San Jose’s form over Almeyda’s three years, it’s hard to imagine they’re entirely happy with him.
The good news, though, is that there are a lot of very good pieces in place – I could’ve listed Kikanovic, Brazilian CB Nathan, Argentine winger Cristian Espinoza, Peruvian LB Marcos Lopez and American CM Jackson Yueill as players to build around – and a lot of money (I count nearly $4 million) potentially coming off the cap via expiring contracts.
They need to use that money to get a high-level No. 10. I know Chofis has scored some bangers, but it’s not him. They also need to be smarter about building CB and FB depth.
And then, once they’ve done all that, they need to use whatever’s left over to convince Wondo to come back for one more year. Please! Just one more!