By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 5, 2023) US Soccer Players – The San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo entered the 2023 Major League Soccer season fresh off making big changes that included new coaches. San Jose turned to former FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez while Houston hired former DC United boss Ben Olsen. The two choices speak to what’s important for a pair of clubs looking for better results in the Western Conference.
The Earthquakes beat the Dynamo 2-1 at home on Saturday on a pair of penalties. The victory pushed San Jose to ten points from six games on the season and into 5th-place in the conference. Under Gonzalez, the Quakes have reached close to 40% of their 2022 win total and 30% of their final point tally.
If San Jose keeps up its current pace, they’ll finish the season on 56 points, a number almost guaranteed to be good enough to get the Quakes back into the MLS Cup playoffs. The last time San Jose finished with more than 50 points in a season was in 2013, a year after the club’s record-breaking Supporters Shield season of 2012.
There’s a long way to go on the road to 50 points in a difficult league. Still, the early returns for this version of the Earthquakes are encouraging in terms of the team’s basic shape and organization. The club has enough attacking weapons to possess the promise of a higher level.
What Gonzalez is already doing is taking a balanced approach with some built-in flexibility that aims to get the most out of the Quakes’ talent. That works to the benefit of midfielder Jackson Yueill, an excellent passer from deep positions who now has fewer pressing responsibilities and can take time to pick out teammates ahead of him. Pairing Yueill with newly acquired Carlos Gruezo gives him a partner who can pick up defensive duties and help slow down opponents in transition.
Two of San Jose’s best young players, Cade Cowell and Niko Tsakiris, have received European interest and looked primed to take the next step. Cowell was critical in the win over Houston, driving into the box and winning a penalty later converted by Cristian Espinoza. It was the kind of dynamic, go-to-goal play that makes Cowell such an intriguing player.
The platform is there. What comes next is ruthless finishing. San Jose has scored just six goals in six games but is second in all of MLS with 11.4 xG, behind only the Seattle Sounders. If the Quakes convert even a small percentage more of their chances, the wins will come.
Gonzalez mentioned expected goals in his post-game comments, saying, “I think it was almost three expected goals which is maybe the highest expected goals we’ve had in the season. I know that includes the penalty kicks, I understand that, but we did create the penalty kicks and that’s part of it. So, we have to be happy with creation, volume of getting shots and crosses in the box continues to be positive. We put a bit more on the frame tonight and I think that’s why it bounced our way. But credit to Houston, they’re a good team.”
Houston came out on the wrong end of the result at PayPal Park, but there’s a reason for positive thinking. Already, the Dynamo’s passing game shows a club that can keep the ball and build attacks.
“We had a poor start,” Olsen said following the loss. “They had more energy, they were hungrier from the get-go, and they deserved an early goal. Then we arrived at the fight and clawed our way back into it. I thought that 1-1 at halftime was about right. In the second-half we got a little undisciplined there during a 15-minute span where we were going for the win and we had good numbers up in certain transition moments but didn’t have the quality and we exposed ourselves way too much for that stretch, and that’s where their PK comes from.”
Olsen’s track record of getting the most out of a squad gives the club a chance to play respectable soccer while building a roster that can aim for bigger things. The club is in the middle of the pack offensively and defensively, positions that represent significant progress and promise a chance in the West. Mexico national team player Hector Herrera is a big part of that.
The setback in San Jose ended a two-game winning streak for the Dynamo, with victories over Austin FC and NYCFC. The Quakes got the points in week 6, but the Dynamo have already shown how competitive they can be in 2023.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Maciek Gudrymowicz – ISIPhotos.com