Preseason with the Earthquakes: How Matias Almeyda aims to turn San Jose around
CANCUN, Mexico -- On the surface, the samurai Bushido code of conduct -- "the way of the warrior" -- has very little to do with any soccer team's preseason. Perhaps even less so at an American club, led by an Argentine, amid the opulence of a pristine vacation resort. But when it comes to the San Jose Earthquakes' attempts to turn the page on a disastrous 2018 season, the sense of discipline, honor, sacrifice and selflessness enshrined in the Bushido code has commonalities with what's been drilled into the players so far this preseason.
It is no coincidence.
"I'm a fan of the history of the samurai," incoming Earthquakes coach Matias Almeyda told ESPN FC after training at the resort. "It's very difficult to implement a code like that in life. I try to do it in my life, but I don't always manage it. It is very difficult; I try."
If the Earthquakes players didn't know what to expect from Almeyda, mentions of samurai philosophies have been just one sign that things are different compared with last year.
"The [coaches], I believe, are changing the DNA of the club, and it's something you have to do if you end up last in the league," was the assessment of Georgia international defender Guram Kashia.
As if anyone who followed MLS in 2018 needs reminding, the Quakes were very poor. The team won four games in 34 matches in a league known for its parity, and its 21 total points were the second-lowest tally of any team since the 34-game format began in 2011. As Kashia pointed out, something had to change, and the club wagered on the 45-year-old Almeyda, who made quite the impact in Mexico with Chivas, taking them from a relegation battle in 2015-16 to the 2017 Clausura Liga MX title and the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League.
When players received their preseason schedules from Almeyda's staff, there was already a palpable sense that this would be different. Gone were the 10-day trips to Tucson, Arizona, for one training session a day and perhaps a weights session now and then. Instead, in the isolated Cancun resort Almeyda used for preseasons with Chivas, almost every day is a double session and the players have had just one day off in two weeks: they were able to watch the Super Bowl.
"I glanced [at the beach] once on my way to taking a nap," Shea Salinas joked about the intensity of the team's preparation inside a facility that hugs the picture-perfect turquoise Caribbean Sea, boasting sand so white it looks like it's been photoshopped. It's been a hard-core camp; reading between the lines, the immediate goal is that Almeyda wants the team to fly out of the blocks at the start of the season and make a statement that this Quakes team will not roll over like last year's squad did.
"The idea is to be the protagonist, the idea is that they rapidly pick up our playing system, that we are a team that marks aggressively, a team that is mobile," said Almeyda, who was voted CONCACAF's Coach of the Year for 2018. "In summary, a team in which everyone runs and everyone plays football."
Training sessions appear designed to sharpen intensity; players have no time to dwell on mistakes but are instead to hunt down the ball as quickly as possible after losing it. Squads of young players from the Cancun area have also been bused in to make sure the San Jose squad isn't able to take things easy.
The hard graft has been well received so far. In some ways, perhaps the Earthquakes' horrid 2018 has helped the players become open to change, giving Almeyda somewhat of a blank canvas on which to impose his ideas.
"Everyone is just open ears, open hearts and open minds. It's special to see," striker Chris Wondolowski said. "Before, everyone had their own agendas and ideas of how they wanted things to go and now I think we have literally 30 guys who are just sponges, willing to soak up whatever it takes."
Wondolowski has been the heartbeat of the Earthquakes team through the highs and the lows of the past decade. Now 36 and entering his 11th consecutive season with the club, the Bay Area native has come to the realization that he's never going to lose his love of playing the game. But he also knows he can't carry on forever, and he'll be sitting down with his wife at the end of the season to discuss whether he "can still hang" beyond this year, with coaching 14- to 18-year-olds a possible post-playing occupation.
Given that his future is in the back of his mind, the "excitement" Wondolowski says has been generated by Almeyda's arrival has been welcomed, as it has been by friend and fellow Earthquakes veteran Salinas, even if the message from Almeyda that every player will have to fight for his spot, regardless of age or pay, means that no one is guaranteed a place.
"If you're not willing to compete for your position, you should probably not play the sport anymore," Salinas said. "I love competing. I'm excited."
The words "culture change" are heard often in camp. Players talk of 60 percent average possession during games, dominating matches home and away, outworking the opposition, making the playoffs, reaching the CONCACAF Champions League and even winning the U.S. Open Cup or MLS Cup as ambitious, but realistic and attainable goals.
"It's just the championship mentality," explained 21-year-old goalkeeper and Bay Area native J.T. Marcinkowski, who worked his way up through the Earthquakes' academy. "Every single day [Almeyda] says, 'Picture yourself being champion, picture yourself on that stage, picture yourself with the trophy.'"
Off the field, the day-to-day changes have been more about marginal gains and creating a positive team spirit. In some areas, Almeyda has stripped things down and gone back to basics. For example, players have to wear matching team shirts at meals and have been strongly encouraged to mix, especially the Spanish and English speakers, at round tables. Earthquakes staff members also often sit alternately with English and Spanish speakers to encourage cohesion.
In terms of team discipline, there aren't fines imposed for misdemeanors, but players still don't want to be caught out.
"You have to be on time, you cannot afford to be one minute late, otherwise you're going to be punished," center back Kashia said. "At the same time, everything is in a fun way. You're not going to pay money, but be punished in a group."
Being late can lead to a player having to trot down the middle of two lines of teammates, who lightly punch the offender from either side. A team that loses a challenge in training can end up on the goal line, facing the net with their butts in the air, while the rest of the players each take a shot at them.
"It's kind of embarrassing, but at the same time really funny," Kashia added. "It creates a really good vibe in the team."
When Almeyda talks to the group, which he regularly does after training, he crouches down and meets the players at eye level. Before training, he can often be seen putting out cones. There's no doubt he is the boss, but the message he's sending is that he's working as hard as anybody.
In terms of building team cohesion, being locked together without families and partners and with an almost military-like schedule leaves no option but to interact. In camp in Cancun, the days went like this: players woke up at 6:00 a.m., had a light snack, rode bikes the one mile past the golf course to the training pitches, trained at 7:30 a.m., returned to the hotel, showered, changed, ate breakfast, napped, had lunch, rode back over to the pitches for 5:00 p.m. training, sped back two hours later to escape the mosquitos that came out at dusk, showered, ate dinner and went to sleep to do it all again the next day.
"[It's a] different challenge and you need a different mindset," Kashia said. "It's something we needed from last season to wake ourselves up."
Almeyda doesn't appear to have been talking at length individually with players, instead driving the message through group chats after training. The Argentine -- who battled depression after his playing days ended -- talks of his past experiences as a player, of getting the right amount of sleep, eating properly and of understanding how hard being a player is, even if on the surface it is a dream job.
"If he says go up the tree, I'll go up the tree," Kashia said. "Seriously. First of all, he played football at the highest level, a top team in Europe. You have to respect that. There is no doubt that he [knows his] football. The way he addresses us and talks, you feel that."
"It makes the team feel connected to the coach and I think that's where it begins," Tommy Thompson added. "That desire to fight for somebody who is willing to make sacrifices for you."
Thompson came into camp with uncertainties about how Almeyda -- who laughs that his English is "so-so" but isn't conversational as yet -- would be able to communicate effectively, but one crucial figure to emerge in preseason has been 22-year-old interpreter Agustin Zalazar. Zalazar is Argentine-American and played at Rosario Central, meaning he is fluent in Argentine Spanish and American English and also has a sound knowledge of the game. It sounds like a small detail, but having a good interpreter has been vital for a manager like Almeyda in drilling his message into players and having them believe in his methodology.
"That's one of the things I've been most impressed with," Thompson said.
For a figure with an international profile and résumé like Almeyda's, the job of resurrecting the Earthquakes is not the most difficult challenge of his managerial career. The former Lazio midfielder doesn't hesitate in stressing that "people died" at River Plate when the team got relegated to the second division in 2011. The task of then becoming a rookie head coach and being responsible for winning promotion had a repercussion that went beyond the pitch.
After his success with Chivas, Almeyda had offers from China, Qatar, Dubai, Mexico, Argentina and the Costa Rican national team, as well as a meeting with Leeds United before his former coach Marcelo Bielsa got the job, and emphasizes that the move to San Jose wasn't motivated by money.
"There were offers but this was something special. We liked it," Almeyda said. "We aren't moved by money ... here we are earning half or less than half what we made at one time in Chivas, so this is a decision to do with the love we have for football and belief in our work."
It's clear GM Jesse Fioranelli and Almeyda have connected to a higher degree than most GM/head coach duos.
The Almeyda link with San Jose actually began in October 2017, when Almeyda's Chivas faced Club Leon in a friendly at Avaya Stadium. Fioranelli and Almeyda both have history at Lazio -- where the Argentine is a bona-fide club legend -- and the two clicked at the game, bonding over playing philosophy and agreeing to stay in touch.
An initial short list of 40 candidates led the Earthquakes to conduct 15 interviews with potential head coaches, but securing Almeyda quickly became the priority. Trips to Guadalajara, where Almeyda remained after leaving Chivas, followed, as did at least two journeys to the Bay Area by Almeyda. After a period of getting to know each other and Almeyda understanding the club's longer-term vision, a deal was signed and announced on Oct. 8.
"I go where they treat me best, where there is a project, where they believe, where there was interest in seeing us," Almeyda said. "I don't care about the place, I care about the people."
Almeyda talks positively about MLS and particularly its parity and says, half tongue-in-cheek, that the coaching staff will tattoo their backs if they lift the title, in a similar way to what they did after Chivas' Liga MX win. He stresses that time will be required to mold this San Jose outfit into one that matches his vision and is fighting for championships, but Almeyda's first steps at MLS' worst club in 2018 have certainly got those inside the institution sitting up and taking notice.
The next mission will be to make those outside do the same when the MLS season begins on March 2 against the Montreal Impact.