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‘I finally believe that we are doing football’: Fioranelli backs Quakes’ retrofitted model

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Jesse Fioranelli swears he hasn’t taken a week off since his arrival to San Jose in early 2017. 

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The San Jose Earthquakes’ now 40-year-old general manager is seated comfortably on a five-legged office chair, with a can of Canada Dry ginger ale in his hand. An 11×14 impressionist-style mural of Troy Dayak shouldering off an opponent with the ball tucked at his feet, gracefully hovers over his right shoulder. A pair of hardcover books on avant-garde art are open and aesthetically placed on the lower glass of a two-level glass coffee table in front of him. The Swiss is in his office, his home away from home, and its composition is telling of the person and professional he is. Ironically, telling about the Quakes’ unorthodox mantra, as well. 

It’s one of the first times Fioranelli opens the doors of his base to reporters. The same space in which most of the signings are made official – at least according to the team’s social media accounts – and where much of the brainstorming regarding the future of the Earthquakes takes place.

With a lukewarm season behind them that saw the Quakes jump from dead-last in 2018 to four points out of playoffs in 2019, he’s given the green light for all questions, pressing and convivial. After all, Fioranelli hinted that he’s entering a second contract of his stint as general manager, in sync with the tune of “five to 10 year hire” that previous President Dave Kaval declared upon Fioranelli’s arrival three years ago. 

Working closer with all facets of the team, in conjunction with head coach Matias Almeyda and his king-size staff, Fioranelli feels “closer to the pulse” of one of the nation’s most storied teams. But after missing the playoffs for a second time in three years, and the local and regional expectations spiking during Almeyda’s spell, Fioranelli has decided that it’s time to talk about the current state of his team and its future. 

“I really want this team to improve,” are some of his words in what was a near two-hour long open conversation with a trio of journalists. “I really want the fans to believe in the direction that we are headed. I would like ownership to feel confident –  as much as the fans – that we are very committed to being competitive. I would like there to be a sense that our club is striving towards a sustainable model. I’m not just speaking from a financial standpoint, but also from a roster-management standpoint. And trust the process throughout, which is part of the reason why I understand that, if the fan up until today has not received enough answers as to the answers they might have, that they look at some of the input that I am willing to share today.”

In charge of the Quakes sporting side during the franchise’s historically-worst season in 2018, Fioranelli’s reputation has been on the chopping block, painted in a bad light by some. Self-inflicted or not, he’s endured pressure and heckling – most notably on Twitter – that very few general managers in MLS endure. 

“And our thoughts about how we would like to go into 2020,” he continued. “That we’re doing this all together, because I really care not about doing everything right by everyone, but by being able to earn the trust, I think, that has been at stake in the last three years, in which we have gone through some ups and downs to be able to say, ‘You know what, I believe in the direction that we are going [in].’ I really care about seeing the fans as excited in 2020 as we were in 2019 for some stretches, and I certainly don’t want to disappoint the fan – every single kid that comes to this stadium; every supporter that has been close the club 30, 40 years – to live up to a standard that we are trying to live every single day.” 

“I believe a lot in the spirit of the club, and I finally believe that we are doing football. I really do. I’m really proud of the people that have contributed to this process, every single one…” 

According to Fioranelli, a former soccer analyst, player agent, and son of a prominent super-agent in Italy during Serie A’s golden age, the team’s cultural progress isn’t universally taken in: 60 to 70 percent of the roster are showing up for non-mandatory workouts during the offseason; players are exchanging heart-to-heart dialogue on WhatsApp groups; and academy coaches are making progress when it pertains to attending and recording all first-team practices.

“This (our organization) is like an organism,” he says, “a living being that you try to take care of and you try to reinforce. From the outside it might be difficult to see all of the dynamics, but it’s important that we believe in that and that we trust it. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to sit down with you today.”

In a rich man’s league, Quakes are banking on a develop-and-sell model

“Each owner can sign a DP and they can spend whatever they want,” Quakes coach Almeyda said recently in an interview with Argentina’s TyC Sports. “Not everyone does it, some do, and that is what marks the difference in the signings.”

For a handful of years, there has been a correlation that reigns supreme in MLS: teams that spend lavishly on their first-team are the teams that win MLS Cup – or clinch playoffs almost at a yearly-rate. With the gap between the haves and have nots widening constantly and exponentially, a chunk of small- and mid-market teams made it clear this offseason that they’re willing to try and keep up with the league’s big spenders. 

Sporting Kansas City broke open its purse and shelled out a reported $9.5 million for Mexican striker Alan Pulido. Columbus Crew wired Tigres over $8 million for Lucas Zelarayan, while Vancouver Whitecaps set a franchise record by purchasing Canadian goal scorer Lucas Cavallini from Puebla for $5 million.

(Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Up until a few months ago – four, to be exact – the Quakes had no official word on whether or not Cristian Espinoza’s loan contract had a buyout option. It was the 24-year-old Argentine winger, himself, who “exercised the option for them” by stating to Villarreal that he wanted to make a permanent move to San Jose. 

Espinoza, pictured at right, cost San Jose roughly $3 million amid interest from various teams in MLS and abroad. Fioranelli said the player can be worth “double or three times” the investment. 

The Quakes had a “blockbuster” signing of their own in Espinoza, but it’s unlikely they’ll top their own record signing any time soon, or replicate ambitious statements of intent done by Kansas City, Vancouver, Columbus or the New England Revolution, who came to a realization that it’s either spend or risk being left behind

San Jose has a different soccer business vision in mind to stay alive: a develop-and-sell strategy. 

Youth development and player trading is far from a new concept in the sport, with shoestring clubs all over the world sticking to the business blueprint for decades, managing to keep up with powerhouses financially and on the field. The Quakes aren’t there yet, but they’re laying the foundation for it.

“We are preparing ourselves for that, there is no doubt about it,” Fioranelli said sternly. “Luckily, we did not have to sell, which is part of the reason why we didn’t have to fill. We have been scouting very actively in South America over the last year. Just recently I came back from a trip, while we were visiting Cristian working out the contract. At one of the places, there were teams from Europe that were actually looking at Marcos Lopez, because he’s going to be a part of the pre-Olympic games in January. They said, ‘You got yourself a great, 19-year-old fullback.’”

“Now, yes, he needs his time,” he added. “Any player – be it Marcos, Jackson (Yueill), Nick (Lima), JT (Marcinkowski), the homegrowns – should have a perspective. I’ll put it in the words of Matias –  that I think he already expressed in a press conference – you have to know the time in which the player stands the weight and carry the backpack. We want to protect them. It’s a responsibility we feel with the person before the player. And with the parents as well, right? It’s the first time in three years that the Top-Five clubs (in MLS) had interest in a lot of our players. We choose to go ahead the way we are going ahead. We’re lucky to be able to do that.”

Fioranelli, who said that excessive spending isn’t “sustainable,” explains the Earthquakes’ model with fervor and precision. There are three levels for players in their first-team pyramid: development, contender and starter. The development players, composed mostly of younger players such as homegrowns and draft picks, will either train with the first-team or train and feature with USL affiliates Reno1 868 FC with a clear pathway of rising up the pecking order. Contenders, on the other hand, are stationed in San Jose and are actively fighting for minutes, while starters are awarded playing time in return for robust performance. 

The structure has a trickle-up effect, causing for the players to drive and support their and the team’s current and future value. When a younger, more marketable player has sustained himself at the top of the pyramid, the time comes in which the player “graduates from the Earthquakes,” Fioranelli said. Put bluntly, the player gets sold for a profit. 

Although that has yet to occur, there are a couple of players approaching that threshold. 

For the first time in Quakes history, players are “marketable,” says Fioranelli. Several key players on San Jose’s current roster received “interest” from winning teams in MLS last season and from clubs abroad. Instead of engaging in transfer talks, the team’s front office opted to keep their core together and continue developing the cognitive, physical, tactical, and technical attributes of each player as they go into their second season under Almeyda’s tutelage.

The Black-and-Blue, too, have placed great emphasis on their academy, despite not having an academy facility. 

During the offseason, the team announced the arrivals of Emmanuel “Emi” Ochoa, 14, and Casey Walls, 16, respectively, as Homegrown players, joining the likes of Tommy Thompson, Nick Lima, Gilbert Fuentes, JT Marcinkowski, Jacob Akanyirige, and Cade Cowell. 

Fioranelli said that their boy’s academy teams – ranging from U12 to U19 – are competing for top-five spots within MLS in all age groups. In efforts to set a top-to-bottom system, Almeyda has all academy sides playing a near-identical system to the first-team’s – intentionally pressuring for the ball, encouraging one-on-ones, and playing out of tough situations from the back – similar to what he ushered in at Chivas.

In three to five years, Fioranelli hopes to have all of the youth “under one roof, in the same city.” But for now, the focus is simple: tapping into the talent hotbed that is Northern California and doubling down on the develop-and-sell model that will keep his team afloat – and potentially within reach of the league’s ever-growing list of big spenders. 

“I do believe that that’s how we can become sustainable,” he said. “And this is not just about young player formation. This is not about how do we save money. This is about how can you create value. That’s how some top clubs in South America and Europe have done it. We’re doing it our own way, and we don’t have to compare with any other markets. I believe in it, the coaches, the scouts.” 

2020: A similar roster with higher hopes

With a low turnover rate following the 2019 season, the San Jose Earthquakes are set to begin MLS’ 25th season with an identical roster. The same team that fell five points short of clinching playoffs after losing their last six games. 

San Jose began building for 2020 over the second half of the season, initiating negotiations with Espinoza, Judson, Florian Jungwirth and Chris Wondowloski – all of whom eventually signed contract extensions. Younger players such as Eric Calvillo and Gilbert Fuentes, who will likely be featuring with Reno permanently next season with other homegrowns, also put pen to paper over the offseason.

A considerable revamp of the roster will have to wait an additional season, with Fioranelli indicating that there will be a “certain turnover heading into 2021.” 

From now until then, minimal transfer activity from the Quakes is expected. Fioranelli and Almeyda will, however, add a center-back this winter, presumably to fill in one of the three spots that opened following the departures of Harold Cummings, Francois Affolter and Jimmy Ockford. 

Either in the summer or during next winter’s transfer window, they’ll sign a young DP from a top-five “important market” in South America. 

During the aforementioned interview with TyC Sports, Almeyda foreshadowed a possible significant change in the league’s Designated Player rule that incentivizes teams to sign DPs under the age of 23. The rule that is reportedly being pushed by small-market owners is certainly influencing the Quakes’ next “big” move. 

San Jose identified “five, six” starting-profile players in MLS that they were willing to bid for, but as Fioranellli notes the teams were uncooperative as they were unwilling to unload their players. In summation, the league’s market has proven to be too limited for the franchise.

So, as the season nears, the Quakes are heading into one of their most important seasons with two DPs in Vako and Espinoza and with an identical supporting cast.

The buzz surrounding the arrival of Almeyda still lingers, safeguarding the high expectations for the team to clinch a first playoff berth in two years. 

Fioranelli might have opened the doors to one of the most intimate spaces in his life and for the first time shared a behind-the-scenes look into his San Jose Earthquakes. But even then, he’s unwilling to reveal his rubric for a successful 2020 season. 

Perhaps that has everything to do with his unorthodox mantra. 

“The way I look at it is what I believe in,” Fioranelli said. “And I do believe that we can have a better start than what we have had in 2019, because we know each other. I do believe that some of the difficulties that we had towards the end of the season – I wouldn’t say that they were self-inflicted – but I do believe that halfway into the season, while there was so much hype around the San Jose Earthquakes, that for us it presented a completely new scenario in which we weren’t accustomed to being in.” 

“There were people giving us the possibilities of winning MLS Cup and we had just came off of a very, very challenging season…,” he added. “And so, that’s part of the reason why as we’re heading into 2020, conscious decisions [have been] taken with regards towards the roster because if you were to speak with Matias, Wondo, Flo, even with Shea, Daniel Vega, to any of the players that were showing up here during the offseason, we know we can do better than that, we feel that. I can tell you it’s the first time in three years that we’ve had as much interest in our players by other clubs in MLS than what we’ve had this year, and there were conscious decisions on why we are still together. Partially, because the club wanted it that way. Partially, because the players wanted it that way. I’m not going to set one, single benchmark. I just want to remind ourselves what we lived through in 2019, and why I believe in why we can have a better start, why we can also finish the season better than we did in 2019. That’s how I look at things right now.”

Wondolowski: ‘I want to play for one more year’

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2019 was a once-in-a-lifetime season for Chris Wondolowski – both on a personal and collective level.

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After enduring a 2018 season that took a toll on the San Jose Earthquakes captain “physically” and “mentally,” the 36-year-old etched his name in the history books, becoming the league’s all-time leading goal scorer.

His 15 goals in 32 games played made him the Quakes’ leading goalscorer and tied fifth in the league.

Wondolowski credits coach Matias Almeyda – who described the forward as a true “goalscorer” and a player “who has made history” – and his staff for “reigniting the passion and the love” he feels for the game.

With a memorable season behind him, ProSoccerTalk spoke to “Wondo” to discuss where his future lies, the ebbs and flows at Earthquakes Way over the past two years, the future of the Black-and-Blue and much more in a two-part series.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the San Jose Earthquakes final regular-season game against the Portland Timbers, and was edited for clarity.


ProSoccerTalk: Is Chris Wondolowski returning for a 17th season?

Chris Wondolowski: I hope so. I’m going to re-evaluate, talk with family, talk with the ownership about a contract. But I’ve had so much fun this year. Matias [Almeyda] has helped reignite my love and passion for the game and I would like to do one more year.


Has there been any talks between you and team officials? You haven’t really gotten to the bottom of it?

Yeah, no, we’ve been in talks. We’ve been discussing some things and working out some details. But yeah, I love this organization and I want to represent it. Hopefully, I can get renewed for one more year.


How do you describe this season? Coming into the season, you guys had those first four losses, and at a point in time also, you weren’t racking up any goals. Many were maybe asking if this was the decline of Chris. But then you have that game against the Chicago [Fire], and everything just turns around. How do you describe the season? 

Emotionally, it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster. Maybe a little anxious coming into preseason, not knowing if my energy, you know, could still hang. I was getting off to a rough start. I wasn’t playing really well. I was playing really poorly and the results were showing that as well. But then I finally just got my footing. The coaching staff have just helped me so much. They’ve pushed me at the right times, they’ve motivated me. But they’ve also helped me relax, helped me just play the game and reminded me that it’s a game and to just enjoy that. And I think that was kind of just the turning point this year: being able to enjoy the game and not being able to just press for goals, press for wins. If you go and execute this game plan, things will happen, and they have.

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 18: Chris Wondolowski #8 of the San Jose Earthquakes holds the ball that he scored his 146th career goal with during a press conference after a Major League Soccer (MLS) match between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Chicago Fire on May 18, 2019 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California. (Photo by Maciek Gudrymowicz/isiphotos/Getty Images)

In all fairness, your numbers have been at an elite level for ten years. How long do you think you can play and how long do you think you’ll actually play (two different things)? 

My body feels good. This is pretty cool with all the technology and data that you can collect and this is probably the fastest and some of the strongest times I’ve had. This year I’ve taken a lot more interest in my health and going to the gym, whereas in years past I was just winging it. Going back to that, I think I could play for a couple more years. I think I want to play for one more [year].


Does that keep you up at night: that your mind and your body is probably thinking of the future, but in actuality – just the way that the sport works – that the age next to your name might not allow you to continue on?

Yeah, a little bit. It’s just one of those things where that’s what I love about this game – you have so many different aspects. We have 16-year-olds in this locker room, and we’ve played with Nick Romando and Kyle Beckerman, who are 37 and it’s pretty cool to see that they’re still doing great things. You have guys like Zlatan – who’s 37 – and doing amazing things. So, it’s pretty cool to see that whole spectrum of things. But I also think I was really pretty content on it being my last year. I’m pretty much just taking the approach where I’m enjoying every moment – even preseasons and stuff like that I was enjoying it and taking it all in, road trips and things like that. But I always thought that there was just going to be a day where I was going to come in and things weren’t going to be fun, but that’s definitely not the case. I love coming into practice. It’s fun hanging out with these guys, so that’s why I’m probably going to end up putting a cap on it and putting an end date some time.


You mention the word “questioning.” Did you ever question your future prior to this season? Did that thought of leaving it all behind ever come to mind? If so, what was it that changed that idea?

To be quite frank, last year took a lot out of me both emotionally and physically. It was tough. It was a rollercoaster of a year. I was in a bad spot mentally, physically. The locker room was in disarray. I took a lot of self-inventory, and I got on myself for letting the locker room get to where it was. It was just refreshing to have this clean slate. We all came in. We all bought in. Again, I think that’s why it’s such a joy this year. It’s been awesome. It’s been so fun.


How do you describe Matias Almeyda?

[A] great man both on and off the field. I think that he has a lot of the morals and values that I think makes up a great man. I think that’s something that I strive for and to be like. I think that he just lives life the right way.


Do you sense that there’s the next Chris Wondolowski – not in the goal scoring aspect, but with the ‘this is my club’ mentality, ownership, and leadership – in the current locker room or maybe somewhere in the Quakes pipeline?

I think there’s a few guys coming up with that. I see guys from the area who have really taken ownership of the club. I see it in Shea Salinas, but also guys like Tommy Thompson and Nick Lima. I think these guys are really understanding what this club stands for and help moving it in the right direction, because this is a special club – there’s so much history and so many great things that happened. I think that they understand it, and are helping move it in the right direction. 


Who did you talk to regarding standing with the Ultras and cheering with them for 90 minutes? Is this something you thought about the day before or a couple days before when you first found out you were going to be suspended. Did you speak to maybe your wife about it, your family? Who was it?

It was just kind of something I’ve always wanted to do.


Just innate?

Yeah. You know, I wanted to be able to yell. I definitely told my wife about it and talked to her about it. She knows how crazy I am, though. But she was all about it. It was just one of those things where I had so much pent up frustration from the red card as well, and it gives me an outlet to yell. I was going to have a lot of nervous energy about that game anyway, so it allowed me to express that. 

SAN JOSE, CA – SEPTEMBER 25: San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski (8) chants with the fans in the stands before the MLS soccer match between the Philadelphia Union and San Jose Earthquakes on September 25, 2019 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, CA. (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With the integration of LAFC to the league, it has taken away a lot of the spotlight from the LA Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes as a rivalry. People who follow this club near and dear will always see the California Clasico as “the” rivalry. With the pending integration of Sacramento Republic to the league, is it possible that San Jose and Sac Republic end up having an organic rivalry? Is that the next big rivalry for San Jose, and is it legitimate?

I think it’s going to be a great rivalry. I think that anytime you’re battling and you have similar territory – especially nowadays with the academies; we’re going to be fighting over those guys and stuff as well. I think that what makes a rivalry is what happens on the field. Fans will always help it and help promote it, but when you’re out there and you’re battling against them, you just develop a dislike for them, a dislike for the club because you want your club to be better. I think that it’s important to have some of these rivalries, and I think the Sacramento one is going to be a great one.


It’s not really talked about, but it’s factual: You are the leading American-born goalscorer in the league this season. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you never announced your retirement from the U.S. men’s National Team. Does it bother you that you’re not even considered, given that fact?

I’d appreciate it, but I would probably turn it down anyways. I am pretty much retired from it. It’s time for the US to move on. There’s so many valuable growth in getting into camps. That’s why I love that Jackson [Yueill] and Nick [Lima] are in these camps. It’s something that you really grow from and learn from. I think you can grow as a player and as a person there. It’s time for Josh Sargent and all these other young guys to really make their mark, and I think they’re doing a good job of it and hopefully they can continue it.

MLS Decision Day Preview: Quakes, Timbers battle it out; Vela, Zlatan go for Golden Boot

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In the Western Conference, four teams fight one last time for two playoff spots, while Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – two goals apart from one another – go toe-to-toe for the league’s Golden Boot. Now, that’s a Decision Day that will keep everyone on the edge of their seats.

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Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes: Unlike the Portland Timbers, the San Jose Earthquakes were hit with a major distraction midweek ahead of their most important game of the year: Matias Almeyda’s rumored move to Monterrey. After the rumors made its rounds in Mexico and then stateside, the Northern Californian club decided to release a statement, which denied any contact from the Liga MX club and San Jose.

Amidst all of the disturbance, Almeyda and company assured that they’re going for the win in what is a win-and-your-are-in scenario.

“We put ourselves in a huge opportunity, a good opportunity, and I think that it’s a phenomenal environment and we’re going to go get the job done and how this group knows how to,” Quakes’ fullback Nick Lima said midweek. “It’s exciting.”

The Timbers, who can still clinch with a loss if Dallas losses to draws, is approaching Sunday’s game at Providence Park with the same, winning mindset.

“It’s a must win. That’s all it is,” said Portland defender Zarek Valentin. “The focus starts now because we know that we control our own destiny in terms of winning and getting in and that’s all you can ask for at the end of the year. Obviously, we wish we could be a little bit higher, but we believe in ourselves and luckily it’s in our hands. We’ve just got to get out there, get some points and get in the playoffs.”

This year’s Decision Day – with the Eastern Conference playoff bracket set – may lack playoff implications, but the Quakes and Timbers matchup makes up for it.

FC Dallas vs. Sporting Kansas City:  Following a bumpy season, FC Dallas controls its own destiny heading into Sunday in what has been its first year under coach Luchi Gonzalez. Their scenario, too, is pretty simple: win and you’re in.

A home game against a surprise playoff absentee Sporting Kansas City stands in their way, but like many other teams in the league at this stage of the competition, Dallas are already in playoff mode.

“The way we’re looking at it from here on out is there’s five games to win an MLS Cup – something that the club doesn’t have on the shelf yet,” first-year head coach Gonzalez said this week. “And we’re really excited to play this first game of five to try to take the next step in the pursuit of an MLS Cup. That’s our focus.”

LAFC vs. Colorado Rapids: The Colorado Rapids, who have been on a hot streak since the takeover of Robin Fraser, are, mathematically, still in the playoff hunt. The likelihood of them clinching, however, stand at less than one percent, according to FIveThirtyEight.

What is a real possibility is Carlos Vela being presented with the league’s Golden Boot. LAFC’s captains goal count is at 31 – one shy of breaking Josef Martinez’s single-season record and two ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 29 goals.

That said, it wasn’t Vela leading the headlines ahead of Sunday, but Zlatan, who claimed the only reason he’s behind the Mexican’s count is because he’s featured in less games this season.

“I have 29 goals in 28 games,” the 38-year-old Swedish striker said. “If I would have the same amount (of) games like the other ones, it would be different.”

“But now I’m chasing someone that has more games than me,” he added ahead of LA Galaxy’s game against the Houston Dynamo. “But if we score we score, we’ll have to see what the end number will be. We’ll see. If there still is a possibility, we’ll try.”

Decision Day’s full schedule

FC Dalla v. Sporting Kansas City — 4 p.m. ET

LAFC  v. Colorado Rapids — 4 p.m. ET

Portland Timbers v. San Jose Earthquakes — 4 p.m. ET

Orlando City v. Chicago Fire — 4 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Real Salt Lake — 4 p.m. ET

D.C. United v. FC Cincinatti — 4 p.m. ET

Montreal Impact v. NY Red Bulls — 4 p.m. ET

Toronto FC v. Columbus Crew — 4 p.m. ET

Seattle Sounders v. Minnesota United — 4 p.m. ET

Houston Dynamo v. LA Galaxy — 4 p.m. ET

Philadelphia Union v. NYCFC — 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta United v. New England Revolution — 4 p.m. ET

How will the USMNT line up v. Chile?

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Gregg Berhalter has little choice but to shake up his USMNT side following Thursday’s 1-0 defeat of Ecuador in an international friendly.

[ MORE: USMNT-Chile preview ]

Weston McKennie is injured and Tyler Adams has headed back to RB Leipzig to kickstart the changes for the manager, who is 3-0 without conceding a goal in his short tenure as USMNT boss.

It’s a safe bet to say we’ll see Nick Lima in Adams’ role, the Quakes defender getting that treatment in January and doing well with it.

As for McKennie, it’s difficult to imagine this won’t be a spot for LA Galaxy man Sebastian Lletget to spread his wings against a tough and tested La Roja midfield.

Will Sean Johnson get another cap against Chile? The New York City FC goalkeeper kept a clean sheet against Ecuador, but this could be a day for Club Brugge’s Ethan Horvath (especially with Jesse Gonzalez starting for FC Dallas at the weekend before returning to camp).

We see this going one of two ways: a small batch of changes but plenty of Berhalter’s mainstays starting, or nearly every starter short of John Brooks and Christian Pulisic changing places with someone on the bench.

Will Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola reprise their wing roles around Gyasi Zardes, or is it a chance for DeAndre Yedlin and Corey Baird to work with LAFC’s Christian Ramirez? Is Wil Trapp still Berhalter’s preferred guy at holding mid, or will Michael Bradley get a start against Vidal and Aranguiz (presuming that they start)?

We expect

Minimal changes

Horvath

Lima — Long — Brooks — Ream

Roldan — Trapp

Pulisic

Arriola — Zardes — Morris

Lots of changes

Horvath

Lima — Brooks — Miazga — Lovitz

Lletget — Bradley

Pulisic

Yedlin — Ramirez — Baird

Educated guess

Horvath

Lima — Miazga — Brooks — Ream

Lletget — Bradley

Pulisic

Yedlin — Morris — Arriola

USMNT player ratings in 3-0 win over Panama

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The United States began the Gregg Berhalter era in winning fashion, topping Panama 3-0 to end January camp. The squad comprised entirely of domestically-based players as is usually the case in winter camp, and they performed well against a weak opponent.

All the positives taken from Sunday night must be put into perspective, which tonight was the incredibly poor quality of the opponent. Panama really struggled to create anything dangerous, and were poor in possession, losing the ball in bad areas that allowed the United States to create build-up opportunities. Still, a number of players stood out for the hosts, and it’s worth pointing out who performed well.

Zack Steffan – 7

Steffan had almost nothing to do the entire first half, but he was there to provide a big save in the 55th minute after Zimmerman lost his man at the far post.

Nick Lima – 8

Lima was the focal point of the most interesting Berhalter tactical approach, as the right-back tucked into the midfield for a solid portion of the match. Lima popped up everywhere, and created problems for the Panamanians. He wasn’t jumping off the field in the first half, but he was utilized well in the unique role. When Berhalter began chopping and changing after the hour mark, he left Lima on for a reason, and it paid off, winning the ball with a huge tackle with 10 minutes to go and delivering the assist for Zimmerman’s goal. That was the biggest moment of the match, as Panama was breaking with an eye towards an equalizer, and he flipped it to a second goal. Massive moment in a massive performance.

Aaron Long – 6

While Long was less positive on the ball than his central defensive partner Zimmerman, the captain was clean at the back, and while he didn’t have much to do for long stretches, he was never caught out of position. He also made 6 ball recoveries, while Zimmerman had just one.

Walker Zimmerman – 6

In a game where the defenders weren’t under a ton of pressure, the big moments stand out even more. Zimmerman was at fault for the 55th minute Panama chance that was only snuffed out by a big Steffan save. He lost his man, and when a deflection saw the ball come to Edson Samms, Zimmerman was late to recover. Zimmerman was solid in possession, advancing the ball forward more effectively than his center-back partner Long, but Zimmerman’s brief national team career has been blighted by glaring mistakes at the back, and today proved that in the moments under pressure, he still has work to do. His 2nd half goal saved him from a 5 rating, showing once again his imposing presence in the air, but his defensive continuity still needs lots of work.

Daniel Lovitz – 7

The Pennsylvania product was dangerous throughout the first half, and while the U.S. was unable to reprise its wide proficiency as well in the second half, it was enough to open eyes. With Ebobisse fading down the left, Lovitz was a positive on the overlap. He also provided strength in defense, with two successful tackles and six recoveries. A very solid showing for a player who could potentially make noise at a position of need.

Michael Bradley – 7

For those who want the United States to hit the full-on reset button, know this: based on tonight’s game flow, Michael Bradley isn’t going anywhere. Berhalter gave the team clear tactical instruction to flow every build-up through the USMNT veteran, and he was the engine for the hosts in every sense. While he was still somewhat locked into a deep-lying midfield role, and he wasn’t tested on the defensive end, what he showed was promising as the United States will need a leader and a rock as they steam towards the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.

Corey Baird – 6

While he was less effective than Lovitz on the wing and struggled in one-on-one play, Baird was a good presence along the right and helped the U.S. attack with width in the first half. He’ll be happy with his debut appearance for the national team.

Djordje Mihailovic – 8

Mihailovic scored the opening goal, and of course gets big marks for that, but his game was so much more than the goal. The 21-year-old Chicago Fire academy product popped up all over the field, and created a whopping four chances in the first half. Three of those were from corners, but it was important nonetheless. He was creative and unique, using his body to move the ball in innovative ways to keep the U.S. in possession. He nearly had a second on a powerful was blocked, before coming off on the hour mark for Sebastian Lletget.

Christian Roldan – 5

Christian Roldan was one of the few disappointments on the field for the United States amid a mostly positive first half. While Mihailovic and Baird were impressive in the U.S. build-up, Roldan was mostly invisible. His flubbed his one big chance in the first half, shooting from 28 yards out instead of threading through for Baird who had made a run clean on goal. Roldan seemingly picked things up in the second half and proved influential down the right flank, but was dispossessed badly on what nearly led to a Panama breakaway before Lima saved it on the second U.S. goal.

Jeremy Ebobisse – 5

The Portland Timbers youngster was spry from the opening kickoff, but he faded quickly after a clash of heads required lengthy treatment to tape up an open wound. Overall, he will be happy to have earned his debut, but there was little else to cling to before coming off after 66 minutes.

Gyasi Zardes – 5

Zardes was influential at the start of the match, switching between target man and left winger with Ebobisse, but mainly staying up front. He was strong up front, with good hold-up play and laying off for midfielders to take charging shots, and his wide play was dangerous. Still, he missed with both big opportunities with his head, the first a glaring miss with acres of space on the doorstep. If Zardes is going to play up front, he has to take those chances, and he should have had the U.S. up big in the first half. He failed again on a tough chance from a tight angle midway through the second half on the break, firing at the goalkeeper and then putting the rebound miles over the bar. He then faded completely in the second half.

Gregg Berhalter – 8

Maybe it’s an overreaction based solely on the lack of a clear plan over the past few years, but it was refreshing to see an obvious tactical layout before our eyes, and one that was executed to perfection. Berhalter had everything working for him: a month to prepare, a massive group of domestic players in the middle of an offseason, and an opposition that provided little resistance. Still, you can only play who’s in front of you, and in that sense, Berhalter passed the test with flying colors. This positive performance gives fans hope as to what Berhalter will do with the full player pool at his disposal.

Subs

Sean Johnson – 6; Had almost nothing to do.

Sebastian Lletget – 5; whiffed with his big chance in the 77th minute, and struggled to make an impact. Coming on as one of a host of substitutes in a friendly is a

Jonathan Lewis – 6; With a half-hour to show, on for Ebobisse, he was positive at times on the left, and did great work to produce Ramirez’s goal at the death.

Paul Arriola – 5; Only 15 minutes to make an impact, but didn’t have much to do down the right.

Christian Ramirez – 6; Didn’t have much time to make an impact, coming on in the 84th minute, but grabbed a tap-in goal anyways to maximize his stint on the field.

Wil Trapp – N/A; had just 6 minutes on the field, hardly time for a midfielder to show much of anything.