The San Jose Earthquakes enter the 2018 season with a clean slate. The club ditched their playoff drought in 2017 and are freshly equipped with a new managerial staff and an upgraded roster that has about it a spirited ambiance in preseason. The transformation into a European-model, forward-thinking club is now well underway and the squad is eager to prove themselves at preseason training camp in Tucson.
The new opportunity also heralds new challenges, though, and even veteran forward Chris Wondolowski had butterflies heading into training camp. “Besides my rookie year, this is the first time I’ve had a new coach coming into preseason…so it’s a bit of excitement and nerves,” he told reporters at the club’s media day. “I told my wife I was a little nervous about the beep test.”
He needn’t have been, finishing an impressive third behind Tommy Thompson and Shea Salinas. The three are also the club’s longest-serving players — on the club’s entire roster Simon Dawkins is the only other player to have played in the Buck Shaw era.
The Quakes have a young squad entering the season, especially with the addition of fifteen-year-old Gilbert Fuentes and sixteen-year-old Jacob Akanyirige, and Wondolowski said the squad is “really finding that cohesion” as they balance youth and experience. As a veteran leader, Wondo will be a key figure in shaping the squad’s identity. “It’s a concept I’ve been grappling with for the past years,” he said. “[The young guys] are friends, they’re great guys. I try to lead by example and show them the right way to do it. You don’t necessarily have to sit down and have talks and lessons with them.”
The arrival of offseason signings will also shake up the locker room. Forward Magnus Eriksson impressed at the club’s open training session, netting a sharp volley towards the end of the club’s scrimmages. Fellow Swede Joel Qwiberg is fighting for the starting left-back position and, given Major League Soccer’s relatively short preseason, had already begun his preparations in the buildup to preseason.
“I’m almost ready to go,” he said. “Of course, I have fifteen-to-twenty percent left to work with but I feel I have a good ground to stand on and get started with. The most important thing for me is to be healthy and prepared for the upcoming preseason. In Sweden, we have a very very long preseason, here it’s more intense five weeks, so it’s been a hard job for me getting well prepared for what’s coming.”
Although Shea Salinas has occupied the starting left-back spot so far, new coach Mikael Stahre has started preseason with a blank team sheet and given the players the opportunity to vie for their spot in the starting eleven.
“Nothing is given,” said Wondolowski. “There’s no spot that’s taken for granted, everyone has to earn their stripes. That starts from day one and that’s our mentality.”
Stahre concurred. “Of course you can watch games, talk with the directors and the front office and the coaching staff, but it’s still really important for me to be on the field with the players,” he said. “Then I can start to act for real.”
That said, he can’t wait too long. The Quakes face Reno 1868 at Avaya Stadium in a preseason friendly next weekend and then have only three more weeks until opening day against Minnesota United. Stahre’s pragmatic approach could help him shape the team in limited time. “You must find a mix,” he said. “In the past, I’ve used the 4-4-2 formation but I’ve also started with a 4-5-1 and sort of a 3-4-3 in Häcken. Formation wise, I’m really flexible.”
He too is “a little afraid, in a positive way” of the challenges ahead. Although the Quakes have an even strong squad, it’s “just on paper” at the moment, per Wondolowski, and it’s Stahre’s job to translate those strengths into regular season success.