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Earthquakes turnaround is worth paying attention to

As we enter the dog days of summer and the sports schedule slows down considerably, here’s a Bay Area pro team that fans should start paying attention to.

No, not the Giants, who have crawled within four games of a Wild Card spot. Or the A’s, who are making another second-half surge and are a season-high 12 games above .500. Baseball season won’t end for a while.

Let’s talk about the San Jose Earthquakes, who have engineered a midseason turnaround that would be synonymous to the Giants making the postseason with their current roster.  

The Quakes started off the Matias Almeyda era with four straight losses and were outscored 14-2 — and that’s not including a friendly loss to Mexican club C.F. Monterrey. It was fair to question whether simply hiring Almeyda — a respected manager in the Americas prior to arriving in San Jose — while making little changes to a roster that finished at the bottom of the league last season was the right move.

Almeyda had seemingly signed himself up for a long-term project that would involve a whole lot of losing and a test of the patience of a fanbase that hasn’t seen a winning season in five years.

But over the last few months, something magical has happened to this Quakes team that shows the importance of coaching. It took a bit, but Almeyda’s coaching style clicked with this squad, and they are now the hottest team in MLS.

San Jose has won four of its last five matches and has just one loss in the last two months. Going back to the start of April, the Quakes are tied for second in the league with nine wins and among the leaders in both offensive and defensive metrics. This is not just a fleeting spurt of success. This is a team that has embraced a new identity and — as of Sunday — has clawed from the cellar to the fifth spot in the Western Conference and within four points of the second seed.

Somewhere in that stretch, Almeyda’s system clicked. It is truly a team-oriented mindset, with quick passing and ball movement — a direct attacking style offensively. Defensively, the Quakes pester the opponent with a man-to-man scheme as opposed to having a backline. As Almeyda has said often, he doesn’t believe in star players.

Perhaps that is what is working with this team. The Quakes have an aging Chris Wondolowski, but do not possess a true superstar in a Zlatan Ibrahimovíc or a Carlos Vela that their in-state rivals have.

But they are motoring along offensively at an incredible rate, tied for fourth in the league in goals scored (33) and behind only MLS-leading LAFC in shots (328). Aside from Wondolowski and fellow veteran Shea Salinas, Vako and Danny Hoesen have come alive for Almeyda. Both of them scored in last Friday’s 3-1 road win at the Los Angeles Galaxy, a win that put a stamp on the impression that the Quakes are for real.

After falling behind early, the Quakes dominated Ibrahimovíc’s Galaxy the rest the way. They took 32 shots on goal — the second most in MLS history for an away team — and if it wasn’t for Galaxy goaltender David Bingham’s career-high 14 saves, the final might have been 9-1.

It was a clear win over the third-place team in the West, coming on the heels of a 3-0 victory over the Galaxy at Stanford Stadium two weeks earlier. After that game, Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto scoffed at the lopsided result, calling the play “very even.”

On Friday, Schelotto struck a different tone:

“We deserved to lose. We couldn’t stop them. … After the first 20 minutes, the game was lost.”

The Quakes are taking the league by storm and making opposing teams eat their words. This is more than just picking up points and winning matches; San Jose now knows that it has both the players and schematics to beat any team in the league.

Of course, the MLS season is a long one. Almeyda’s aggressive system requires a lot of stamina and the hope is their best players won’t run out of gas come September and October.

But so far, this turnaround has brought some much-needed life and positivity to a franchise that needs it. The Quakes opened the sleek and shiny Avaya Stadium in 2015 but have yet to fill it with a winning team, as the “Never Say Die” squads did at the tiny Buck Shaw Stadium seven years ago. That has certainly changed. Now, Silicon Valley finally has a stadium and a soccer team that is worthy of attention.

Eric He is a freelance writer and a USC graduate currently interning at the Southern California News Group. He has been Sharks beat writer and covered a variety of Bay Area sports teams for SFBay. His column runs every Monday.

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