For 45 minutes on Saturday, it looked like maybe Matias Almeyda’s magic was starting to sink in.
The San Jose Earthquakes head coach was in search of his first victory in MLS, and had his team leading the New York Red Bulls at halftime of their match at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. The Red Bulls posted the best home record in MLS last year, but Almeyda knows a little something about earning results at Red Bull Arena, having led Chivas Guadalajara to a Concacaf Champions League semifinal series victory over the Red Bulls almost exactly a year ago. On Saturday, at least briefly, it looked like he might get the better of the Red Bulls again.
Reality kicked in, however, and the Red Bulls shook off their lackluster first half and rattled off four unanswered goals in the second half on the way to a 4-1 romp that left the Earthquakes still in search of their first point, let alone victory, under their new coach.
“The reality is I knew what I was getting into,” Almeyda said after Saturday’s loss. “I came into a project with a long-term approach, a team that only won four games last year, very few. We have to change not only the style of play, but also being able to change the mentality of every player. The first half we benefited from what we’ve been training, but the second half I didn’t like at all.
“In the first half we had two clear chances and if we had been effective the game would have been over,” Almeyda said. “When they had that chance, they hurt us.”
The Earthquakes defense was ripped apart in the second half, as the Red Bulls press forced more of the turnovers that their counterattack thrives on. The Earthquakes buckled in the second half, much as they did a week earlier, when they went from a 0-0 draw at halftime against Minnesota United to a 3-0 loss.
That has been the story of the 2019 Earthquakes so far. Each match has offered a glimpse of promise — they’ve scored first in two of three games and been tied 0-0 at halftime in the other match — but they’ve finished with three losses, having been outscored 9-2.
“That’s work, that’s mentality, it can also be concentration or lack of concentration,” Almeyda said of his team’s recent collapses. “Of the nine goals we’ve given up I haven’t found one that the opponent has scored by their own virtue but by our own errors. That says we need to keep working to find what we’re looking for.”
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Despite their latest heavy loss, the Earthquakes did show some glimpses of what could come from Almeyda’s work. The Red Bulls clearly came away impressed with San Jose’s first half performance and saw the opposing manager’s familiar fingerprints on that effort.
“Even this San Jose team versus versions in the past, they’re a tougher team to play against now,” Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis told Goal. “I think they have some really good pieces in place, and now I think he just needs time with his style of play.
“It’s very unique and probably something the players haven’t seen before at San Jose. It’s going to take time for them to adjust, but I think they have everything they need. They just need a little bit of time and we know Almeyda has a great track record so there’s no doubt that team is going to continue to improve because we saw glimpses of how good they can be today.”
Almeyda is realistic. He knows more than anybody that implementing a style as intense and unique as his is going to take more than a few months.
“It’s not easy to change a style of play when a team is used to another style,” Almeyda said. “We want to be protagonists and playing the way we played in the first half I think we can do that. And when we can do that for longer I believe we can get out of this hole that we’re in.”
One thing Almeyda wouldn’t concede is the team’s need for more reinforcements. The Earthquakes added some key pieces in the winter, including Cristian Espinoza, Marcos Lopez and Daniel Vega, but revamping the worst team in the league is going to take more than one transfer window.
“For now we’re good,” Almeyda said when asked if more roster chances were on the way. “I’m doing a real deep analysis of the team in the middle of the season. For the moment we’ll try to give these players confidence.”
At one point on Saturday, Almeyda spoke glowingly of the Red Bulls, the same team he eliminated on his way to a CCL title with Chivas. As he praised the Red Bulls it became clear that he is hoping he can build something with the Earthquakes that can be as successful as the New York club, which has won three Supporters’ Shield titles in six seasons.
“We played two games in one, the first was excellent, and the second was very bad, against a rival that doesn’t forgive you. A rival that has been working on its project for five years, that has their style of play installed,” Almeyda said. “We’re looking for all that. Looking for wins, looking for a style of play, looking to change a mentality and it’s going to take time.”