Revitalized San Jose Earthquakes ride MLS’ surging wave of Latin American talent

[READ ARTICLE IN THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE]

Carlos Fierro glanced toward the field at Avaya Stadium and flashed a wry smile. The Mexican midfielder had just been asked about his reception from fans of the San Jose Earthquakes, the team that signed him June 25.

He didn’t hesitate.

“I’m really happy with how the fans welcomed me,” Fierro said in Spanish. “There are a lot of Mexicans here that embraced me, and some Americans, too.”

Fierro was not implying that American fans did not embrace him. It just seemed like his countrymen were everywhere in his new town, lining up for an autograph from the 25-year-old import and hyping him up on social media.

They had good reason to crave Fierro’s presence. In the Earthquakes’ 22-season history in Major League Soccer, the team has signed three Mexico-born players who have competed for their country on an international level: Missael Espinoza (1996), Francisco Uribe (1998) and Fierro. And prior to last fall, San Jose churned through three head coaches in a 15-month span, resulting in a four-win season that saw them finish dead last in 2018.

The Earthquakes stand to benefit from MLS’ growing allure among young, promising players from Latin America. Once a pre-retirement destination for decorated stars — Mexican players such as Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Rafa Márquez and Luis Hernández come to mind — the American league is turning into a hotbed for budding internationals aiming to jump-start their careers.

“I think MLS is growing,” said Fierro, who played for five teams in Liga MX, Mexico’s top flight. “More important players are arriving here. The league’s playing level is growing and it’s getting more competitive.”

The Earthquakes plunged headfirst into MLS’ youthful trend on Oct. 8, 2018. Matías Almeyda, ironically nicknamed “El Pelado” (“The Bald One”) for his flowing brown mane, became the Earthquakes’ first full-time head coach from Latin America. The 45-year-old Argentine carried a reputation for lifting struggling teams to prominence — he led a moribund River Plate side to promotion to Argentina’s top flight in his one season there before guiding Chivas de Guadalajara to five trophies in three years in Mexico.

Almeyda soaked up a hero’s welcome in San Jose. Some 2,000 people were at Avaya Stadium for a “Bienvenidos Matías” event last fall to welcome the swashbuckling newcomer and hear a live performance by “popteño” band SuenaTron. At one point, Almeyda hopped off the covered stage to mingle with fans in the pouring rain, then motioned for his assistant coaching staff — men hailing from Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Brazil — to do the same.

With just one loss in their past 11 games, Almeyda and the surging Earthquakes are giving those fans reason to keep coming back to Avaya. And while Almeyda kept last year’s squad largely intact, he has infused the club with a distinctly Latin flair. All six of San Jose’s major signings this year arrived from south of the border.

Among them is Fierro, who represented Mexico at the under-17, under-20 and under-23 levels. The feisty winger won the 2015 Copa MX and the 2017 Clausura Liga MX title at Chivas de Guadalajara under Almeyda, and he hopes to rekindle that form with a group that feels familiar.

“It’s easier, especially when you understand there are certain things that we Latinos have in common,” said Fierro, who appears likely to debut for the Earthquakes in Saturday’s home game against the Columbus Crew. “We’re happy to be around each other. But the Americans, too — everyone here is really kind and happy. So I think there’s a nice family forming here.”

The Earthquakes closed the summer transfer window by signing Argentinian striker Andres Rios on Tuesday. Rios, 30, occupies the team’s eighth and final international slot, which opened after Georgian defender Guram Kashia secured his U.S. Green Card on Monday.

Rios will find Argentinian countrymen in goalkeeper Daniel Vega and forward Cristian Espinoza, two more Almeyda signings this year.

“I think any player that comes to this team needs to give their grain of sand,” Almeyda said. “Every player here has the same determination, the same intentions and desires. They won’t have an advantage with me because they are Argentine.”

No Earthquake has shone brighter than Espinoza this season. The 24-year-old, on loan from Spain’s Villareal, has a team-high nine assists, tied for fourth in MLS. His work rate and precision make him an ideal fit for a man-marking system that stresses pressing and possession.

“I always assumed that at some point in my career I would come to this country,” Espinoza said. “I didn’t imagine the possibility of arriving here now, but I was really happy when they called me and informed me that San Jose wanted me here with Matías.”

The Earthquakes have experienced only one sellout crowd at 18,000-seat Avaya this season — a March 30 tilt against first-place LAFC — but they could be in store for more. Last week’s 3-1 win against the middling Colorado Rapids attracted 17,762. Juicier matchups and growing stakes for San Jose — currently tied for third place in the Western Conference — should only bolster attendance.

Not to mention Spanish speakers.

“A few of us are trying to learn Spanish, (Almeyda is) trying to learn English,” Earthquakes veteran Chris Wondolowski said. “I’ve always said I wanted to learn Spanish, but now I have to. It’s pretty cool.”

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