While the best teams from MLS currently vie for postseason success, the worst team in the league embarks on a major transformation.
The San Jose Earthquakes, who ended the regular season at the bottom of the Western Conference with the fewest points (21) and wins (four) and conceded 71 goals (which would have tied Minnesota for a new league record for futility if Orlando City hadn't done worse by leaking 74), needed a change. It was time to press the reset button and reenergize a club that has strayed far from its Supporters' Shield-winning days of 2012.
Like a tired boxer gasping for air after getting knocked down, the Quakes were in need of help.
Enter Matias Almeyda, the 44-year-old Argentinian manager who comes to MLS after a three-year tenure with storied Liga MX side Chivas Guadalajara. While at Chivas, Almeyda helped the club win the 2017 Clausura Liga MX title, two Copa MX titles, the Supercopa MX and, most notably and most recently, the 2018 Concacaf Champions League trophy. En route to winning the CCL title, Almeyda's Chivas beat three of MLS's best in succession: the Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC. San Jose hasn't beaten any of those teams since 2016.
“What we saw in Matias was a coach that brought success by creating a culture we strive to emulate," San Jose general manager Jesse Fioranelli said upon the official announcement. “He has always had a winning mentality, both as a player and a coach, and most importantly, he is someone that knows how to redirect a team in a difficult situation with a commitment to a distinct style of play and youth development."
Almeyda knows everything about revival, as to him, the challenge of rejuvenating a team is somewhat of an addiction.
“Honestly, I’m coming to San Jose for a very simple reason. Despite the struggles, there is a long-term project here that is being realized, and I want to help this club reach the successes it once knew. That to me is very appealing,” he told SI.com. “I am always attracted to the challenge.”
His ability to awaken something in players is almost seen as a gift. In 2012, after River Plate was meandering in the second division, he helped the storied club return to Argentina’s top flight and then did exactly the same thing with Club Atletico Banfield in 2014. When he arrived at Guadalajara in 2015, the club was in relegation and financial trouble and, once again, Almeyda projected a plan to help the club.
“I don’t come here to gamble or save them so they don’t get relegated,” he said during his first Chivas press conference. “I am here to awaken the giant.”
San Jose is dreaming of a similar end result, and Almeyda is already working on what to offer this team, having already spent months analyzing the club’s infrastructure, squad and meeting with everybody from academy coaches to first-team personnel.
“I know everything about this team. Everything," Almeyda said. "Ever since they first approached me I’ve been studying and formalizing the style, philosophy that will be implemented. We have to strengthen the team with three or four players, but first it’s about evaluating the squad right now and taking it from there.”
If using Chivas as an example, Almeyda will bring so much more to San Jose than just purchasing players. His work always begins inside the club and improving the day-to-day logistics.
When he entered Chivas training grounds for the first time, Almeyda modified almost everything, making sure no player or staff member felt ignored. He integrated the youth academy and reserve teams in one group and coordinated several training days alongside the first team so it would feel as one big, cohesive family while also encouraging competition. Under Almeyda, no position and no role is guaranteed.
In the classic style of Marcelo Bielsa, one of his former managers, he eradicated any type of hierarchy, enforcing equality and treating everyone the same way.
Almeyda would set the cones himself in training, put the balls away, demand players and staff to eat together, reconfigure the club’s facilities and make sure everyone knew his office door would never be shut. His only demand would be wholehearted dedication from everyone.
“I want San Jose fans to know that this will be a team where all will run and all will compete,” he said. “Every single player will be aware of the tremendous responsibility of wearing the San Jose shirt. So they’ll leave everything on the pitch.”
Tactically, expect a complete transformation from San Jose’s vulnerable 4-4-2 system as Almeyda’s priorities are in the midfield. His 4-2-3-1 formation aims to always take control of the game, with or without possession. The message, therefore, is about control and making his team the protagonist, no matter the situation.
“Home or away, this team will play the same way.”
When it comes to the club’s supporters, Almeyda is aware of San Jose’s Hispanic population and its Mexican community, and he knows how important it is to create a stronger bridge between the club and its diverse fan base.
“Already, I have seen the warmth from Latinos and the Mexican community here in San Jose and to me, this community is essential for the development of this club,” Almeyda said.
Despite showing interest in the managerial role for the Mexican national team, Almeyda said the federation never contacted him, but he makes no secrets about wanting to manage at the international level in the future.
“For now, my eyes are of course on San Jose, but in the future I do wish to manage a national team as it’s been a dream of mine,” he said. “My career has never been about being in a comfort zone. I always…always, look for something more.”
After a historically poor season, San Jose is desperately seeking more as well.