Here's the question. Can the San Jose Earthquakes pry the door open a bit further? Last week, the Quakes took advantage of a Columbus side weakened through suspension and then match injuries. Just like the Dynamo match and Eddie Robinson's injury, when first Chad Marshall and then Ezra Hendrickson went out, the game changed. This Saturday, the Galaxy are without their top goalscorer in Landon Donovan (with the U.S. men's national team), their big foil Alan Gordon (suspension), and El Pescadito, Carlos Ruiz, is with Guatemala.
The Los Angeles Galaxy coaching staff will probably work through a few different scenarios, maybe even making changes right up to game time. I think we'll see a back four consisting of Abel Xavier with Sean Franklin or Greg Vanney next to him in the middle, Chris Klein on the right, and Ante Jazic on the left. In the middle of the park I expect to see Alvaro Pires, Joe Franchino and/or Pete Vagenas playing centrally, with maybe Ely Allen or Mike Randolph on the left and David Beckham on the right. Up top, Edson Buddle. Gordon did his team no favors getting thrown out of the Colorado match — the Galaxy have no strikers left for Saturday night. Israel Sesay and Bryan Jordan are not ready for MLS duty, so we might see a 4-5-1. There are a lot of options for Ruud Gullit in the middle and in the back but all result in similar effectiveness.
Xavier and Vanney are two pillars in defense: tactically aware, good on the ball, but slow! If Franklin is in the middle, his athleticism is supposed to make up for the lack of speed in a tandem. Klein loves to get forward and whips in a good ball, but he's not a defender: when run at, he will back up right into the box. Randolph started the Colorado match at left back and the Quakes can only hope he plays again. Randolph is out of his element in MLS because he roams forward, is late in getting back, and is not very effective even though at times he appears good. Jazic came on for Randolph 60 some odd minutes in against the Rapids and is a very good defender. Goals don't often come from his side, which in my opinion is the best way to evaluate that position. If Jazic is finally fit, I'd start him. Steve Cronin, Quakes number 3 keeper back in 2001, is between the sticks. Cronin tends to parry shots right back into danger and his footwork, or lack of it, allows for goals from shots that seem miles away.
The Galaxy midfield is pedestrian with David Beckham the exception. Pires is slow and I haven't seen anything extraordinary from him. Franchino was on the bench last match with Vagenas as the holding mid. If the Gals play with five in the middle, maybe Vegenas and Franchino play with Allen on the left.
Buddle can handle the lone striker role and, for what it is worth, I like him. I think he's underrated. Big, strong, good feet for the most part, although prone to the occasional poor touch. Buddle runs the channels well, and has a knack for scoring. Unlike the trash talking Eddie Johnson, (who hasn't scored a goal in a year! For anyone!), Buddle seems to have grown up. He keeps to himself and his seemingly aloof attitude is really just a shy, quiet young man.
I could be completely off here and Gullit could throw out a 4-3-3 or something, but I don't know how he'd find the right combination, and playing away from home is not the time to experiment.
Saturday night represents another great opportunity for the Earthquakes to take full advantage of an undermanned side. I can't imagine the Quake side changing too much based on the result in Columbus. And what a difference a Gray makes. Kelly, while not spectacular, played his role well. If one was to watch closely, you'd see Gray always moving back to the middle keeping the team shape. I can't tell you how important this is. (Well, if you've read any of these pre-match reports, you'd know I have a particular penchant for team shape!) On Saturday, the Earthquakes need to bring the same workmanlike attitude and confidence. The confidence allowed the team to possess the ball, and the hard work paid off in another clean sheet. Ronnie O'Brien will need to put in another inspired effort. While he seems to get to choose when he wants to play and plays well when things are going well, San Jose needs ninety minutes from him. If Ryan Johnson can get on the end of another O'Brien service — wow.
The Galaxy only bring a few threats to Oakland. Beckham obviously, so that means no silly fouls around the box, and get the match ups right on set pieces. Corrales and Gray need to take away passing channels to limit service from Becks to the LA forward(s). San Jose defenders need to pay attention to Buddle, keeping him from having any joy on the night. Because the match will seem a little like an away match with the circus atmosphere, and more than a few tickets sold to see one player, the Earthquakes need to focus on the task at hand: three points are there for the taking.
My keys for a result:
Possess the ball, get a rhythm.
Shoot — a lot.
Get the crowd behind the team by fighting for everything.
Team shape: Attack with four, defend with six, don't get stretched — no gaps.
(Tim Hanley is a former assistant coach for the Quakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy, and also played in goal for the NASL Earthquakes.)