San Jose Earthquakes vs. New York Red Bulls preview: Defense ready to pick up slack for injury riddled offense

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With a sold-out Buck Shaw Stadium expected and a large national television audience tuned in, the San Jose Earthquakes will look to earn their first points of the 2013 season on Sunday when they face the New York Red Bulls (kick-off 7:00 p.m., TV: ESPN2).

A bevy of scoring chances went wanting for Chris Wondolowski and the Earthquakes in their season opening 2-0 loss to Real Salt Lake, preventing the team from putting the game away early in their favor, but it was a pair of mistakes on defense that doomed San Jose to their first regular season loss at Buck Shaw since August 2011.

Head coach Frank Yallop recognizes that the task will not get an easier with the attack-minded Red Bulls in town.

“We have to make sure we are defending well,” said Yallop prior to the team’s training session on Friday. “They have some really good players going forward and it will be a tough game for us. I thought we played well enough in our last game to get at least a point, maybe three, so have to make sure we can defend for 90 minutes against New York.”

The Red Bulls also experienced a mixed bag when it came to their season opener. After building up a 3-1 lead against the Portland Timbers last Sunday, the defense capitulated under a heavy assault from the JELD-WEN Field denizens and settled for a 3-3 road draw.

“It’s difficult to get a complete read on the opposition because the first week is a feeling out process for a lot of teams,” defender Jason Hernandez told Center Line Soccer. “Obviously, to score three goals in Portland is not an easy feat, so they are clearly dangerous going forward. They have a lot of individual guys that can change the game and make plays.”

Those individuals include star attractions Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, both heavily capped by their respective national teams, and former RSL forward Fabian Espindola. All three players look to create on offense and do not need more than a few chances to impact a match.

“Those guys are definitely going to get their touches on the ball and there will be times when they are in dangerous places on the field,” continued Hernandez, “but it is up to us to defend as a team knowing those guys may only need one or two plays in the match, similar to Saborio with Salt Lake, to change the game. You can really do a great job on those guys for 88 or 89 minutes but they will still find a way to create something. You have to keep track of those guys at all times.”

For coach Yallop, his concern leading up to this Sunday’s game against the Red Bulls is that the defensive frailties the team displayed against Salt Lake will become the rule rather than the exception. He has especially been working with his defensive core on positional awareness when it comes to tracking New York’s big three attacking players.

“Espindola starts up high, but he’s always drifting,” said Yallop to Center Line Soccer. “He runs in really well from wide to central, and we have to make sure we either pass him on or stay with him at all times. Along with Henry and Cahill, they are never all up front and instead they overload on the side, so we need to stay organized. The two goals we conceded last week have been runs off us. We’ve been working on that all week and will correct that for the weekend.”

“The accountability and responsibility of making sure their most dangerous attackers are taken care of,” added Hernandez, “and that we have our eye on them and are communicating well through the 90 minutes will be the keys to our success defensively.”

The ability of the team last year to consistently make up for the occasional defensive lapse with a stirring late match comeback does not appear to be a recipe that will work to start this season. Injuries to numerous offensive players and their substitutes on the match-day bench have dramatically changed the dynamic of the 2013 Earthquakes, and at least initially this year the defense will be called upon to keep games as tight as possible until healthy players return. That includes improving their defensive effort from what transpired in week one against RSL in their upcoming match against New York.

“They know we are a tough team to beat here in San Jose,” said Hernandez, “but we’re definitely looking to bounce back after last week and really reestablish ourselves as a really good home team. The last couple times we have played them they have been entertaining games and there has been some great soccer played. It’s going to be two teams with a lot to prove and we’re looking forward to going at it this weekend.”

Another injury forces a change on offense

With opening night starting forward Mike Fucito incurring an injury against Real Salt Lake, coach Yallop will need to find a replacement to start along side Chris Wondolowski at striker against the Red Bulls. The frontrunner for selection is second year midfielder Sam Garza, who played as a forward for much of his college career, but never at the professional level.

“I am excited to play New York,” said Garza at Friday’s training session. “Obviously they have a lot of good players. Hopefully Mike will get better soon since we are short staffed on forward, but wherever Frank (Yallop) needs me, at right back, left back, no matter where, I’ll do it.”

Yallop also mentioned rookie forward Adam Jahn as a potential replacement for Fucito if he is ruled out against the Red Bulls, but the coach seemed to be leaning toward using the target forward as a substitute later in the game.

“He’s a young player straight out of Stanford that did well for us in the preseason,” said Yallop. “But, obviously, when the real stuff gets going it’s a difficult league. Once he gets settles and builds his confidence and does the things I know he can do, he’ll play well. He has height and good soft feet. He’s a good player that did fine on his debut and will likely at some point play again this weekend.”

With front line starters Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart still out for the rest of the season’s opening month, Garza and Jahn, at least until Fucito regains his health, may be instrumental parts in the Earthquakes offensive plans.

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