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Barber: Matias Almeyda has MLS’ Earthquakes marking, running and winning

This offseason, the San Jose Earthquakes were treated to a 17-day trip to subtropical seaside Mexico. However, befitting a team that had finished 4-21-9 in 2018, easily the worst mark in the first 21 years of the franchise, the players didn’t get to spend a lot of time wakeboarding.

“Yeah, it was brutal,” said Tommy Thompson, a 23-year-old right-back from Loomis. “We were in Cancun for over two weeks. And we had double days every single day throughout the whole trip, and we had one day off. So it was very intense.”

It wasn’t just the preseason workouts, which members of the team consistently describe as the hardest of their careers. It was the mental load of learning a new offensive and, especially, defensive approach, one that bears little resemblance to anything being deployed at the professional level. And when the Major League Soccer season finally began, the Earthquakes lost their first four games.

Here we go again, right?

“I think definitely, the first four games it was ‘another bad year,’” said midfielder Jackson Yueill. “It’s a new system. No one’s gonna, like, understand it.”

It all seems so quaint now that the Earthquakes have turned into one of the hottest teams in MLS. Since that opening skid, they have rebounded to go 11-3-5. They are currently tied with Minnesota United and the Seattle Sounders for second place in the Western Conference. They haven’t lost at home since the end of March.

On other fields, the 49ers and Raiders hope to engineer huge turnarounds from terrible seasons. The Giants looked like they were on their way to doing just that until, oh, about a week ago. Every bad team believes it is one season away from contention. In reality, it’s exceptionally hard to do.

But the Earthquakes are doing it. How? You have to look to the inspirational taskmaster who took over as head coach this year, and the retro-chic defensive scheme he brought to San Jose.

Landing Matias Almeyda was a coup for a club that last posted a winning record in 2013. A star player for Argentina in two World Cups and the 1996 Olympics, he raised up a downtrodden River Plate team to promotion during his one year coaching in his home country, then guided Chivas de Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s most popular teams, to five trophies in three years.

The Earthquakes were lucky to get him, and he made a quick impression with his tough-love approach and his insistence upon a beautiful form of futbol.

As Almeyda told reporters through an interpreter early in the season: “I got tired of seeing anti-soccer. For me, the anti-soccer people wait and allow their team to be carried by individual efforts. Our scheme involves everyone playing and everyone running. Everyone is committed and whoever is not committed is left to be exposed. We don’t believe in star players; the stars are far away in the sky and cannot be touched. We believe in the same soccer we played in our youth, to enjoy it.”

Is it my imagination, or do those words sound like something Steve Kerr might say about basketball? Certainly, Almeyda is having a similar effect on his team.

The coach has reshaped the roster to some extent, adding experienced Latin American players like Argentine right winger Cristian Espinoza and center-forward Andres Rios (who just joined the team), Brazilian defensive midfielder Judson and Mexican left winger Carlos Fierro (who joined a month ago). Thompson has responded by learning Spanish, logging more than 200 hours on the language app Duolingo.

But considering how bad the Earthquakes were last year, and how established Almeyda is in the sport, it’s kind of surprising how many of last year’s players he kept around. It was a vote of confidence. Almeyda didn’t believe he had inherited a lack of talent. He had encountered a lack of hope.

“Last year, I think we did have a really good team. I think mentally we were a little weak,” Yueill said. “You know, last year, we’d go up 1-0 and then we’d end up losing 2-1. This year, we’d go down 1-0, but then we’d come back and win. So I think the team together is very strong. And it’s a credit to him, because he believes in us.”

Belief, in itself, is never enough. Almeyda also installed a system that is so old, it’s practically revolutionary.

Seventy years ago, most soccer teams played a man-marking style of defense. That is, an individual defender would be assigned to an individual opponent, and would shadow him all over the pitch. Then offenses learned how to manipulate the open field to spring attackers into open runs. Defenses countered by going to a zonal system, with each back responsible for an area rather than a human.

Every team uses some combination of man and zone defense. But the Earthquakes players I spoke to Tuesday said they’d never seen this level of marking.

“It’s a completely different style of play,” Thompson said. “And it allows to have an element of surprise when we play against teams, because a lot of times guys have never seen a team play like this before.”

It isn’t pure one-on-one defense. The Earthquakes use a rotation system to apply pressure on the ball or to account for a star scorer on the other team. Again, think of the Warriors and the switching defense that has helped carry them to three NBA championships.

Of course, marking a foe for an entire game requires a huge amount of running, even by soccer standards. Hence, that rugged Cancun training camp - and that 0-4 start. It took the Earthquakes a while to catch up physically as well as mentally.

Now they might be the most frustrating opponent in the league.

“I got a lot of guys from national teams come up and say, you know, ‘I hate playing you guys,’” Yueill related. “It’s always having someone two yards from you, three yards from you the entire game, and the ball’s not even near.”

And what does Steve Kerr often say about the Warriors’ defense? It’s the key to their offense. San Jose’s harassing D forces opponents out of alignment, and an aggressive emphasis on counter-attacks has resulted in the equivalent of fast-break opportunities. Between June 25 and July 27, the Earthquakes set MLS records for total shots over two games (64), three games (81), four games (103) and five games (128).

The Quakes are defending, and running, and shooting, and winning. And enjoying every minute of it.

“Leonard Griffin, my college (assistant) coach (at Cal) my freshman year, said, ‘Winning is fun.’ It’s as simple as that,” said homegrown defender Nick Lima.

Even if the route there can be surprising.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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