The San Jose Earthquakes provided a window into their locker room this week.
A video showed new manager Matias Almeyda, the Argentine who took Chivas to titles in Liga MX, Copa MX and the Concacaf Champions League, spitting out instructions at halftime. As the 45-year-old lets the instructions flow, Agustin Zalazar cuts in. The interpreter - his official title is Head of Coaching Communications - hasn't finished his translation before Almeyda starts the next line. It's a beautiful chaos of language, but is the message getting across?
Absolutely, say members of the Quakes.
"It’s very clear. We talk so much, and he’s very open to talk and answer all the questions we have," center back Guram Kashia told Goal. "Sometimes I have a lot of questions, but we don’t have an issue with that. Everyone is trying to help. There are a lot of guys on the team who can speak Spanish and translate for me, so it’s not an issue. We have meetings with video, replays, everything, all the small details which are important in soccer and it’s very clear. It’s very clear right now, but with so many new things we have to perform."
Last season, whatever message previous coach Mikael Stahre was trying to transmit didn't seem to be getting through. The Quakes were the worst team in MLS, racking up just 21 points. That was the fewest since D.C. United's 2013 campaign. The offseason saw the club bet big on Almeyda, who fell out with Chivas' directors last summer and was a candidate for jobs all over the world before settling in Northern California.
Hiring Almeyda was a coup for the Quakes, with rumors already flying that one of Liga MX's biggest clubs will make an attempt to pry him away from the MLS team. For now, San Jose's players looking to adjust to his unique style of play. Zalazar was needed, however, with Almeyda and his staff speaking only Spanish. The transition wasn't immediate, but the group bonded during a grueling training camp in Cancun, where Almeyda had taken Chivas for preseason workouts in the past.
"At first, it was really awkward, but when we spent those 17 days in Mexico it became kind of fun," long-time Quakes midfielder Shea Salinas told Goal. "Everyone downloaded the app Duolingo. All the guys are trying to learn Spanish, all the Spanish-speakers are trying to learn English. We have these Spanglish conversations that are funny. It’s worked out well.
"And Agustin, our translator, does an amazing job of keeping up with how fast Matias talks and how fast he coaches. It’s been a much smoother transition than I had expected."
With the language barrier being breached, the Quakes now must focus on figuring out how to implement the concepts Almeyda demands. Players say they're in better shape than ever after the hardest preseason of their lives. They'll need to be. Almeyda's system calls for players to man-mark
"That man-marking, to follow everybody, is something new for me and I’m trying to really pay attention on the right people," Kashia said. "With two central defenders, one follows the striker and one is a type of libero. That’s something we need to be working on. We’ll make mistakes, but every training, we’re working on it. It’s a matter of time about how fast we’re going to learn and adjust to the system."
"it’s completely new for me too as a central defender because if a striker goes to the toilet, I must follow him there too!" he joked.
It may take some time for players to be able to execute exactly what the River Plate legend is drawing up, but San Jose has plenty of time. While fans' expectations have gone up for the team, they won't be expecting the team to go from the bottom of the league to MLS Cup champions overnight. Almeyda also is taking a patient approach but is transmitting his belief in his methods to the squad.
"I think there’s definitely a learning curve with every new coach, with every new system. Our hope is that we pick it up quickly, but what we’ve loved is that when we weren’t very successful with it in the preseason, he’s not the type of guy that’s going to say, “OK, let’s change it. That didn’t work. Let’s do something else.’ He’s confident in his system, he knows it works, he knows if we do it correctly, it’ll pay dividends," Salinas said.
San Jose needs it to. Aside from Almeyda and his staff, there are few new faces around the locker room. For as many things as are changing around the team, many of the players who were part of last year's dismal campaign remain with left back Marcos Lopez and central midfielder Judson signings that should improve the team but who are hardly star names. Kashia, who arrived midway through last season, said Almeyda has brought in a different attitude, which may be enough to change things around.
"I’m not going to lie to you, the team’s losing mentality was not right. I heard a lot of excuses every game. It was a weird environment because it seemed that we gave up on the season," he said. "This is a completely new team right now with the new group of coaches who have a completely different mentality, a winning mentality. They’re trying to give us information, a winning mentality."
The proof of whether or not the mentality has changed will come soon enough, with the season kicking off Saturday against the Montreal Impact. The information, however, is getting through just fine.