Typically the idea in professional sports is to finish first — after all, that is a great way to make the postseason and reward your supporters for their allegiance. With respect to the San Jose Earthquakes, being first has taken on a whole new meaning in the early goings of the 2011 regular season. Last week against Chivas USA, the Quakes became the first team in MLS this season to fall to a loss after taking a lead earlier in the game. This week against Philadelphia, the Quakes became the first team to go up a man and subsequently lose.
As ignominious as those “firsts” are for San Jose, what really matters is that they are now in last place in the Western Conference after suffering their third straight league loss. Head coach Frank Yallop trotted out a starting XI against the Union that featured five different players than had faced Chivas the week before — included the first starts of the season for four players — and the effort and intensity were vastly improved. However, grit and guile could not create scoring opportunities, and even playing up a man for nearly 50 minutes of the match, the Quakes succumbed to a late penalty kick goal from Sebastien Le Toux and lost 1-0 at PPL Park in Chester PA.
Having had a couple days to reflect on the lost opportunity to at least earn a point on the road, the Earthquakes returned to training on Monday showing no lack of confidence in their performance from the weekend. In fact, coaches and players alike were encouraged by the effort against the Union, and insisted that they were in better shape than a week ago to return to the winning ways that led them to the postseason in 2010. That year was marked by games like Saturday’s against Philadelphia — though the role of the Earthquakes this time around was played by the Union — where determination and a strong defense kept the team in games long enough for them to earn points both at home and especially on the road. Moving forward from last week’s players-only meeting and meshing with the ethos of defense-first tactics favored by coach Yallop, the Quakes rallied around that ideal on Saturday. Despite the loss, the players said they couldn’t wait to get back on the field in a meaningful game to keep their progress moving upward.
The Earthquakes have that chance tonight against the Portland Timbers in a qualification match for the U.S. Open Cup (kickoff at 7:30 p.m. PDT at Jeld-Wen Field) before having a week off before they return to league action against the Vancouver Whitecaps on May 11th. Confidence may appear high around the Nutrilite Training Facility in San Jose, but the Timbers will prove a stern test for the Quakes this evening. Already seeing the success of their northern neighbors in the Open Cup tournament, Portland is expected to field a difficult line-up against the Quakes. San Jose should counter with a starting XI featuring a mix of players that appeared against the Union with a couple inclusions from the reserve team.
But first, to sum up the weekend that was with the San Jose Earthquakes, Quake, Rattle and Goal! gives you the Good, Bad and Ugly — the GBU on QRG — on the 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union.
Good — Coach Yallop promised a slew of changes for the Union match, and he delivered by giving Justin Morrow, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Brad Ring, Bobby Burling, and Steven Lenhart their first MLS starts of the season. He moved central defender Brandon McDonald to defensive midfielder in an effort to get more bite in the center of the pitch, all the while setting up his formation into something that resembled a 4-2-3-1 more than the 4-3-3 utilized through the early part of the season. The result: the Earthquakes played their best soccer of the past four weeks in a first half that was marked by little offense from either side, but a fighting spirit that led to numerous hard fouls, yellow cards for dissent, and a red card to the Union’s Jordan Harvey for a retaliatory kick on a prone Chris Leitch. Accussed by many of looking listness and disinterested in losses to the Red Bulls and Chivas the past two weekends, the Quakes showed more of the bite that made them a playoff team a year ago.
While McDonald did well, pairing with Ring to stifle the interior players from the Union, Leitch and Morrow on the defensive wings did a great job to contain the Philadelphia attackers that were subsequently forced to the sidelines to look for space in the attacking third. Morrow especially had his best game as a professional, making a goal-saving steal on a pass intended for Le Toux in the first half that would have put the Union forward clear with only goalkeeper Jon Busch to beat. In the second half, Morrow displayed the speed he is known for in repeatedly tracking down Le Toux and others before they could find open passing lanes. After struggling to find his game in 2010, Morrow showed in 90 short minutes that he can be relied upon by coach Yallop to provide cover for regular starting left back Ramiro Corrales when the elder defender needs a rest.
Bad — While calling out Mark Geiger for the soft penalty kick award on Jason Hernandez’ hand-ball in the area late in the game would be the simple answer to what was bad in this game, the real travesty was in the Earthquakes’ inability to adapt their formation to being a man up so that they could put the Union on their back foot defensively. Coach Yallop set up his team tactically to play for a shutout, with any offense coming as a bonus through the run of play. When the red card to Harvey emerged in the 41st minute, the Quakes did not have the right personnel on the field to take full advantage. With his second half substitutions, coach Yallop did little to rectify that problem in switching out like for like instead of offense for defense. Bringing in Sam Cronin instead of Khari Stephenson for Brandon McDonald, left the last offensively-minded bench player at Yallop’s disposal riding the pine instead of injecting life into a listless Quakes offense.
The fact that a Union lineup that lacked its attacking verve after halftime substitutions from head coach Peter Nowak was still able to dominate the game despite being a man down said a lot about what the Quakes strove to accomplish at PPL Park. Simply, San Jose went into the match seeking a result — with a scoreless draw being very acceptable — and did not adjust to the advantage of being a man up to seek out a win and the full three points on offer. Forward Steven Lenhart, not expected to play the whole game, featured for the full 90 minutes and registered the only shot on target by the Quakes. His effectiveness was an issue given that he is still rounding into full match fitness, so leaving him on the field for the whole game strongly suggested that Yallop was content playing for a point. Unfortunately, those plans were laid to waste at the fickle tweet of the referee’s whistle in the 76th minute and the Quakes walked away from the match empty handed.
Ugly — Watching the antics of Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was difficult, to say the least. The veteran Columbian has brought a steel to the Union defense that was not present for long stretches of last season, and his efforts between the posts have played a large part in Philadelphia having allowed only two goals in their first six games of the season. With four 1-0 clean sheet victories in those six games, the Union are nipping at the heels of Eastern Conference champions-to-be New York Red Bulls in the early going of 2011.
That aside, Mondragon was also over-animated on the field on Saturday in confronting both the referee and the Earthquakes players over every little infraction in the first half. A yellow card issued for dissent after a shouting match with Brandon McDonald came on the heels of two other incidents from the goalkeeper, most notably a heated exchange with the referee following a yellow card issued to teammate Amobi Okugo minutes earlier for a foul on Steven Lenhart. Why Mondragon felt it necessary to race out to midfield to join the conflagration following the red-card worthy Okugo elbow to the head of Lenhart is curious. The lack of an appropriate response from Geiger at that time set the stage for Mondragon’s later antics, all of which could have been avoided with the issuance of an early yellow card to the ‘keeper.
In all, the Earthquakes 1-0 loss to the Union will go down as a lost opportunity to pick up points in the road while giving supporters hope that the team has reached their nadir and will start to pick up their pace and urgency in league play. With two more road games before the Quakes return to Buck Shaw stadium on May 14th, the team will be under scrutiny to show they can build off their defensive performance against Philadelphia and begin to improve offensively in a quest to turn draws into wins.