The San Jose Earthquakes acquired Vako in the summer of 2017 after an impressive start to his young career that included stints with Holland’s Vitesse, Poland’s Legia Warsaw and the Georgia National Team. The then 24-year-old was given a tremendous responsibility, with general manager Jesse Fioranelli making him his first Designated Player signing and calling him the team’s centerpiece to build around for years to come.
He burst onto the scene in 2017, tallying five goals and two assists in just 13 appearances and helping the Quakes reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012. He scored more goals in his first 13 appearances than Western Conference counterparts Diego Valeri (4) and Nicolas Lodeiro (4) did with their respective clubs.
Vako then had an up-and-down 2018, as did many of his teammates, and San Jose plummeted to the bottom of the Western Conference standings. After winning just four games all season, Vako was among the players most subjected to scrutiny from fans and media alike.
Nobody ever questioned his talent, dribbling prowess or creative ability, but there were concerns about his defensive work rate and decision making in pass-or-shoot situations. His unique blend of pace, strength and flair kept him on the field, starting 31 of 34 matches, but poor team results led to more questions than answers.
Heading into 2019, the Quakes’ hiring of Matias Almeyda signaled the end of preconceived notions. No longer would players play due to the size of their paycheck, the cost of their transfer fee or their accolades from past seasons. Almeyda, who had no prior relationship with any Quakes players, wanted individuals who exerted effort on both sides of the ball, put the team first, and showed the desire to learn a challenging new system built on trust and heart.
As a major part of preseason, the Earthquakes spent more than two weeks in Cancún, Mexico, largely focusing on stamina and conditioning. In fact, the club’s training regimen on certain days would not include a soccer ball at all.
After starting each of the club’s first four matches this season and being subbed at halftime of their 5-0 loss to LAFC on March 30, Vako was among the casualties to Almeyda’s drastic lineup changes the following week against Portland on April 6, which the Quakes won 3-0.
Vako didn’t make a single start in the nine MLS matches across April and May, and exceeded 15 minutes as a substitute just twice in that span. He could have fizzled out mentally, but he continued to work hard in training and waited for his opportunity.
Cristian Espinoza, the Quakes’ dazzling first-year right winger, picked up his fifth yellow card of the season on May 26 and was forced to miss the D.C. United clash on June 1. Vako returned to the XI for the first time in more than two months and helped the club earn an impressive road point in the nation’s capital.
Almeyda has preached a next-man-up mentality that has proved invaluable for the club when dealing with injuries, suspensions or internationally duty. Every player named to Almeyda’s starting lineup has been given a clear message: the spot is yours to lose.
“Vako was playing at the start of the season, but I felt that there were players that were performing better than him,” Almeyda said after Vako’s two-goal performance on June 26. “I communicated that to him, and the level that I want from Vako is the one we saw tonight. Sometimes it bothers the players to be taken out, which is normal, but I think that’s one way to create competition and bring the best out from everybody. He played a great game tonight and is playing well overall. In Vako, I want a player that is reversible. He’ll play not only when he receives the ball, but also to assist his teammates when it comes time to defend. He can do that, it’s proven that he can, and he will keep doing that.”
Vako hasn’t surrendered his position since getting his chance. In fact, he’s proving to be one of the team’s most irreplaceable players in the midfield. He has tallied four goals and two assists in seven matches since the start of June and, more importantly, the Earthquakes are 4-1-2 in that stretch. Of all players in MLS, only seven – including Vako – have tallied at least four goals and two assists since June 1, including superstars Carlos Vela, Alejandro Pozuelo, Maxi Moralez and Diego Rossi. Vako also scored three goals in two matches as part of Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup play during the month of June.
“He’s been perfect,” said Almeyda following the Clasico on June 29, in which Vako scored the game-winner. “He needs to stay on this path; it’s the only way he will keep his position and he is demonstrating that he has improved a lot.”
Vako has not only gotten the stamp of approval from his coach, but also from his teammates. Once seemingly broken, the Earthquakes’ locker room camaraderie is among the strongest in MLS.
“I’m proud of him,” said Chris Wondolowski. “I think that he, along with all of us, got off to a rough start. It would’ve been very easy for him just to throw in the towel, to not care, but he was opposite. He’s now bought in, and as you saw tonight [June 26], he’s a great player. The first goal – that flick around him was excellent. It was unreal. But also, just all throughout the game, he was a handful. He always is a handful and it was great to see. I’m glad to see him get his reward.”
Even national media are noticing Vako’s development. ESPN analyst and former MLS Golden Boot winner Taylor Twellman made a remark during a match between Seattle and Atlanta that Vako would be in the MVP conversation if Carlos Vela wasn’t having his record-breaking season.
Why exactly has Almeyda gotten the best out of the now 26-year-old? For one, he emphasizes one-on-one battles. You can often hear him shouting for players to dribble at their man when they don’t have backup nearby. Vako, Espinoza, Tommy Thompson, Shea Salinas and Marcos Lopez are all players that thrive in a free-dribbling role. Additionally, Almeyda does not discourage his players from making mistakes. Should anyone turn the ball over, they won’t be punished or retaliated against as long as they fight hard to win it back immediately. It encourages creative players to be creative and dangerous players to be dangerous. Also, the man-marking system forces players to have a high level of accountability and removes any opportunity to finger point when things go astray.
Now with Mexican midfielder Carlos Fierro in the fold, all Quakes players need to be on high alert. Fierro made it known during his introductory press conference that he’s willing to fight for a spot and has experience at several positions on the field, including left and right wing, center forward and right back. Expect his arrival to further fan the flames of competition in San Jose.
The Quakes, now in fifth place, will take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday, July 20 at 7 p.m. The match will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Bay Area, KNBR 1050 and 1370 KZSF.