After coming up just short in a bid to reach the playoffs last year, the San Jose Earthquakes are gambling that a largely unchanged side will get the job done this time as they open the season Saturday at home versus Toronto FC.
The Earthquakes (13-16-5) finished four points out of the final postseason spot in the Western Conference in 2019 as they came completely undone down the stretch with a season-ending six-match losing streak in which they were outscored 12-4 and failed to score more than one goal in any defeat.
General manager Jesse Fioranelli, though, has opted to stay the course with manager Matias Almeyda, who was rumored to be considered for the Monterrey job during that late stretch. The returning players comprise 90 percent of the minutes played last year for San Jose, the highest percentage in the league.
«The most challenging goal, which is to be competitive,» Almeyda said when asked about his team’s goals in his second season. «By being a competitive team that can define the course of the season. In the meantime, we are happy and enjoying the week before our match. We’re looking forward to starting the season and I am personally thankful towards this organization and this league and style of soccer that allows me to continue learning. We are very enthusiastic.»
As has been the case for more than a decade, any talk of success for San Jose begins with striker Chris Wondolowski. Now the league’s all-time leading goal-scorer with 159, the 37-year-old is coming off one of his better seasons after totaling 15 goals in 32 matches, tying him for fifth in the MLS.
For goal-scoring, attacking midfielder and Georgia international Vako returns for his third season with the ‘Quakes, looking to build on an 11-goal haul from 2019. San Jose also made winger Christian Espinoza’s loan deal from Villarreal permanent after he racked up 13 assists, and Almeyda is playing Magnus Eriksson in a deeper midfield role as part of a potential 4-4-1-1 set-up after totaling six goals and seven assists.
Daniel Vega is expected to start the season between the sticks, but U.S. Under-23 keeper JT Marcincowski could make a push for playing time once the Olympic qualifying cycle ends.
After finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC (13-10-11) reached the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years but was denied a second title in that stretch after being outclassed by the Seattle Sounders 3-1.
The loss put a damper on a strong late-season push in which the Reds went unbeaten in 13 matches (7-6-0) en route to the final, but a quiet preseason – Toronto FC has no Champions League commitments for the first time in three years – could allow Greg Vanney’s team to get off to a quick start.
«Physically we’re in a good position. A lot of guys are returning, so we picked up where we left off,» said Vanney, who will be coaching his 100th match with the club. «We’re good, but none of it really means anything until the season starts,» assessed the coach. «Always the first few games are getting yourself really going and into it.»
«We’ve got a good mix of guys, they get along great, work hard for each other, have good chemistry on the field,» he listed. «We’re comfortable with that and now we get the league started.»
There are, however, two notable absences for this game as veteran midfielder and captain Michael Bradley and Designated Player signee Pablo Piatti are both out through injury. Bradley’s absence could be Liam Fraser’s gain as he is expected to work in tandem with Mark Delgado as a push-and-pull center in what is expected to be a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The good news for Toronto is forwards Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore are both healthy, which was a challenge last year for the latter. Despite being limited to 23 games, Altidore finished with 12 goals and seven assists. Pozuelo’s first season following his move from Genk was a successful one as he totaled 14 goals and 14 assists across all competitions.
Quentin Westberg starts the season as the No. 1 goalkeeper, having supplanted Alex Bono last season and serving as a major contributor to Toronto’s late-season push to the MLS Cup final.
Wondolowski’s brace on either side of halftime powered San Jose to a 2-1 victory in the lone meeting last year, canceling out a goal by Richie Laryea that gave Toronto a short-lived lead. The Reds are 2-3-2 all-time in San Jose but winless in their last four trips (0-2-2).