The GBU on QRG: Have the Quakes hit rock bottom?

Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes tried his best to give it to the Goats -- watch your head! -- but saw his early goal fail to stand up in Chivas USA's come from behind 2-1 victory.

The San Jose Earthquakes spent all week reassuring anyone who would listen that uninspired performance against the New York Red Bulls in a 3-0 loss last weekend was merely an anomalous performance in what was already a promising start to the season. Quickly forgotten by many was that the failed trip to New Jersey was actually the second game in a row that the Quakes had not played with any urgency for the full 90 minutes — the 1-1 draw with TFC was too often a sluggish affair for the home side. So through smoke and mirrors and a bit of undeserved optimism, San Jose welcomed winless Chivas USA to Buck Shaw Stadium confident that they would earn their first home win of the season, but easily capitulated to the visitors in a 2-1 loss that should have been much worse.

I tweeted not long after Saturday afternoon’s debacle that one bad performance was a hiccup, two bad performances a trend, and a third would be a pattern — after that I would be ready to panic about the Earthquakes. My thoughts were primarily formed around the mathematical principles of geometry — not so much statistics — whereby points in space can form vectors and surfaces. Two points connected will always from a line — a trend, if you will, defined by the direction of the vector between the two points. If a third point lies in the direction of that vector, its strength is increased — the trend now takes on the properties of a pattern. Unfortunately when I wrote that tweet, I didn’t really give much weight to the TFC draw in the set of negative points. I’ve reconsidered that opinion, and now feel that sufficient evidence is growing that the Earthquakes are doing more than just struggling with respect to expectations, they are possibly a team that just isn’t good enough to compete for the MLS postseason.

Before we start compiling an obituary for the 2011 Earthquakes — 28 games still remain on the schedule — the reaction of the players this week in training and at PPL Park in Chester, PA this weekend against the Philadelphia Union still needs to be observed. Monday morning saw a players-only meeting take place among the Earthquakes, and head coach Frank Yallop has promised substantial changes to his starting XI. If neither of those actions shake the Quakes out of their complacency, I’ll certainly be ready to believe in the data — and admit to the pattern condemning San Jose to a season of struggle that will be impossible to ignore.

But first, I’ll share my thoughts on the weekend that was for the San Jose Earthquakes with this week’s Good, Bad and Ugly.

Good — Um… Well… Hey, that Chris Wondolowski guy scored for the first time since netting two against FC Dallas back in MLS week #2. Capitalizing on some tentative defending by Chivas USA on an early first-half set piece, Wondo netted a wayward Khari Stephenson header up and over Goat’s goalkeeper Dan Kennedy to briefly fill the Buck Shaw faithful with a sense that all was right again in Quake-land. The goal was certainly against the run of play, and Chivas USA did not give up, even though their nemesis netted his fourth goal in a row against the Western Conference cellar dwellers. In fact, 75 minutes and two goals later and Chivas became the first team in MLS this season to comeback to win after trailing during a game.

Wait, I can’t really end this section on a downer — this is the “good” section after all — so what else can the Quakes find to hang their hats on from the weekend? Why not celebrate the Earthquakes reserves 3-1 victory over the Chivas USA reserves just hours after the senior side’s loss. Forwards Ryan Johnson and Steven Lenhart, substitutes in the regular season game, started in the Reserve League contest and showed well for the Quakes. Add in another exceptional reserve performance from Anthony Ampaipitakwong, and the solid defensive work of Bobby Burling and Ike Opara, and coach Yallop will have some quality options to include in his starting XI this weekend if he follows through on his promise to shake things up. Ampai especially deserves to make his first career MLS start on Saturday against the Union.

Bad — Simply put, the central midfield duo of Simon Dawkins and Sam Cronin severely underperformed against a Goats midfield that packed it in through the spine of their formation and dared the Quakes to possess the ball more on the wings. Doing little to counter the central Chivas pressure and help provide any sort of linkage from wing to wing, Dawkins and Cronin were noticeable in their failure to provide passing options to and from the back four and the forward combo of Wondolowski and Scott Sealy. Too often, with Cronin appearing to struggle to keep pace with Chivas, the Quakes defenders resorted to long balls over the top of the Chivas midfield in an attempt to spur on the offense. That strategy saw very limited success in 2008 and 2009, and to no surprise elicited groans from the Buck Shaw faithful that had been supported the team since their MLS rebirth.

The on-field malaise was apparent in other players as well — even the ever-optimistic coach Yallop could not identify a player in his post comments he was satisfied with on the night — and made for a match where the score could have been much more in favor of the visitors. In what I term “team trust” for what is needed among players in possession oriented system was lacking, as too often passes went astray of their intended targets, or movement off the ball showed no faith that passes would come their way as a result. Passing triangles that had been so effective in the first couple games of the season gave way to players clumping together and neglecting proper spacing. To make matters worse, moments of indecision on the ball saw the Earthquakes either yield possession to Chivas too readily in the middle third of the field or desperately pump the ball forward in a vain attempt to let the wingers and forward attempt to track them down. Getting back to the basics of simple one-touch passing from the back four through Cronin and the outside midfielders should put opposing defenses more in a position where they are reacting to the Quakes movement instead of aggressively attacking the passing lanes in anticipation of the next attempt.

Ugly — Just like in the previous section, a lot went wrong for the Quakes on Saturday against Chivas USA, but most of it was a result of their own complacency and inability to work together cohesively as a team. The ugly display of intensity from San Jose created a palpable tension in the stands toward the players on the field. Such was the disgust in my section of the stadium, that for the first time all season at the Buck, I witness sarcastic cheering from the fans later in the game when something finally seemed to go the way of the Quakes. The grit and determination so often on display during the successful run to the playoffs in 2010 was lacking all afternoon.

Almost forgotten from Saturday is the fact that until, Chivas scored on a well executed counterattack late in the second half, the Earthquakes were in line to take a point from a game where they had no business doing so. The trio of substitutes Ampaipitakwong, Lenhart, and Johnson brought an energy to the contest that nearly turned the result fully in the Quakes’ favor. Perhaps if Jon Busch saves Justin Braun’s shot anywhere else put right into the path of Mariano Trujillo for the game winning tap-in goal, and Lenhart made solid contact on his late game shot toward goal, the result would be in reverse and plaudits for a plucky late comeback would be showered upon the home side. The ugliness of the first 60 minutes of play would be included in the post game winning ugly assessment perspective. Luck would be credited with much of the Quakes result in that scenario, but that would be little different than it was for many matches in 2010.

However, that wasn’t the case on Saturday. The Earthquakes did little to separate themselves from Chivas USA in the conversation of bad MLS teams. In my own rankings here on SB Naton, I dropped the Quakes into the bottom tier after witnessing first-hand their performance on Saturday. Panic is setting in for the San Jose faithful — a pattern of poor and uninspired play is beginning to take hold. Players and coaches alike need to rally together soon, or 2011 will be a long and disappointing season.

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