Major League Soccer's hottest team is coming to Santa Clara. Coming off four straight wins the Crew is on a roll. Sigi Schmid, who I thought might have been replaced prior to this season, is proving the naysayers wrong. He has been given ample time to build a squad that, while not "sexy," is certainly effective. Blue collar, workmanlike, great team effort. Similar to the Earthquakes but laden with more talent at the moment.Frustrated with the lack of playing time, Crew keeper Will Hesmer nearly quit a few seasons ago. I am glad he didn't. I thought he was good in college and he should have started in Kansas City but for some strange reason the Wizards kept on with Bo Oshoniyi. Will is solid and very capable. In front of him a reborn Frankie Hejduk is playing as well as I have seen him play in years. Hejduk is always dangerous going forward, although at times a little haphazard. Frankie is an old school type of defender, always willing to challenge for the ball, never backing down. He has matured and is less reckless than in the past.
In the Crew's 3-5-2 line-up, Frankie is joined by Chad Marshall and Ezra Hendrickson. Ezra was riding the pine a while ago and has only seen action because of Gino Padula's MCL sprain. Padula is listed as "probable" for Saturday, but it's likely Hendrickson will start. Chad Marshall in my opinion is one of the best centre backs in the league. I was fortunate to work with him during his time at Stanford and have always felt he was very talented. (As hard as I pushed, I couldn't convince Paul Bravo and Frank Yallop to grab him last year when he was riding the Columbus bench). Chad is great in the air on both sides of the ball.
In the middle there is a pile of Crew players. Brian Carroll and Danny O'Rourke sit in and Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers are wide, with Schelotto in front of them. With the injury to Moffat we may see Ekpo on the pitch with Schelotto playing higher just behind Moreno, or we may see Jason Garey return to the fold. Carroll is a solid holding midfielder and is better with the ball than O'Rourke. Danny is prone to giving the ball away and while Carroll plays side to side a great deal, he is safer. Robbie Rogers on the left is a good player, loves to get forward, loves the ball, sometimes too much. Robbie should play simpler but nevertheless is quite effective. Eddie Gaven is always a mystery for me. I never know which one will show up, the enthused version or the lost little kid! He can be effective but tends to drift out of games and is not good defensively. Schelotto is the danger guy. He pulls the strings for Columbus — a crafty midfielder that likes the ball, and will look to spring Moreno as well as the wide players. If he plays it wide, he will be looking to get into the box for a return pass.
Up top, we all know Alejandro Moreno! A tough, workmanlike striker, good in and around the box, Alejandro requires service to be effective. He does not possess a good shot from outside the box but has a knack for finding gaps and getting on the end of crosses. Alejandro will take advantage of the less than stellar MLS referees so get ready for lots of diving in the hopes of attaining dangerous set pieces (read "Schelotto to Marshall" if a direct shot is not on.) I'll be interested in who Sigi plays with Moreno. He may settle for Schelotto playing higher, which becomes almost a 3-6-1, or we may see Jason Garey again while Ekpo sits.
For San Jose to get a result, the Quakes need to play quickly through the middle — no dallying on the ball, it is way too crowded in there. The gaps will once again be in front of or more dangerously just behind Gaven and Rogers. I would love to see Salinas start as he was very effective against Dallas. Guerrero is going to be chasing Hejduk and probably won't be effective going forward. If San Jose uses Jean Philippe and Kamara, look to find them in the channels wide. At times the long ball wide will be the right pass. Anything in the middle will be cut out by Marshall, so keep him out of the picture. Ezra is the weakest of the defenders and can be beaten on the run. That is why I would like to see Salinas instead of O'Brien — Ronnie no longer runs at players. If the Quakes can possess the ball even a little, they may be able to pin Rogers and Gaven back, forcing them to defend. Even so, Denton and Riley will be busy. If Riley has the ball a great deal then Sigi is up to his old tricks. He likes to force the play to the weakest passing defender. So if the ball is over there a lot…
At this time the Earthquakes' forwards are not effective shooting from distance, but can be dangerous on the run. So, defend well, and look to get Kamara and or Jean Philippe in behind the Crew's wide players, isolating Ezra or Marshall one on one. Look to play the ball into the space that Frankie Hejduk leaves. The Corrales vs. Schelotto match up should prove entertaining.
My keys for a result:
Shape both in attack and defensively.
Possess the ball to pull Columbus out of shape, look to counter.
Play wide, stay out of the middle of the park.
Set pieces could be the difference!
Tim Hanley is a former assistant coach for the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy in MLS as well as Stanford. He also played for the Quakes in the NASL.