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Previewing the Quakes versus Sounders: first leg of the Heritage Cup

The San Jose Earthquakes conclude their two-match road trip with a visit to Qwest Field this Saturday to take on the Seattle Sounders FC. In an effort to get the inside scope on the goings on with Drew Carey's boys, I conducted yet another back-and-forth question session with a local beat reporter. This week, put your hands together for Dave Clark of the very informative website Sounder at Heart.

Dave and I exchanged three questions each, before getting into the ever perilous pool of match day predictions. Speaking of, thank you all for not calling me out on last week's optimistic view of the trip to New England. The Quakes defense did their part, but the offense just could crack a Revolution backline that kept very well organized. However, that is the past, and we have a new opponent to be concerned with - the Seattle Sounders.

Center Line Soccer: In the wake of the 4-0 home loss to the LA Galaxy, Sigi Schmid promised to make changes on the field and off. The Sounders responded with a good win at New York, but are things settled with the team heading into this weekend?

Sounder at Heart: The team shifted to a 4-2-1-3 with Ljungberg as the CAM prior to the LA match, and is still growing into that philosophy, using high pressure from the forwards and great defensive work from the two defending midfielders. What went wrong in the LA match was more poor defense on set-plays, and a team that gave up in the second half.

The latter they tried to fix by benching Montero against Red Bull, but the set-play thing is something that they have been spending a ton of practice time trying to improve. This season they've been weak on corners, part of their theory though is to just give up less, and playing with six "defensive" players is a part of that strategy.

There are signs of improvement, and this team is as talented as any, but they are prone to mental lapses on both ends that wind up frustrating the fans and lead to underperformance.

My first question for you concerns the 'Quakes defense and how much they seem to have improved over last year. Is it the resurgence of Joe Cannon, talent on the backline or a tactical shift that should be credited?

CLS: Last season, the Earthquakes defensive corps suffered numerous injuries that disrupted the line-up from week to week. Unable to generate any consistency, the back line lost their cohesiveness and confidence as the season wore on, and Joe Cannon was torched for nearly 50 goals over the campaign. Ramiro Corrales and Bobby Convey were enlisted into the defense during the season, but neither player settled in completely. MLS veteran defender Chris Leitch, a preseason acquisition from the New York Red Bulls and looked at as a capable player when he joined the team, ended up being asked to anchor the back line at times and was voted the team's defender of the year.

Entering 2010, the Earthquakes defensive core began to take form. Jason Hernandez was fully recovered from a horrific ankle injury suffered late in the season and was poised to take back his place in the center of defense. Leitch and Corrales were fully settled into their places on the wings, while Brandon McDonald and Bobby Burling expected to compete for the fourth spot on the back line. In the MLS Super Draft, John Doyle and Frank Yallop picked up three defenders, including Wake Forest standout Ike Opara. So impressive was Opara that even with him splitting time between San Jose and North Carolina for the better part of the spring, he was there in the starting line-up for the season opener against Real Salt Lake.

Tactically, a big change for the Earthquakes came after the 3-0 loss to RSL, when Yallop shifted McDonald into a defensive midfielder role in front of Hernandez and Opara (and later Burling). With a defensive triangle in front of goal, opponents have found little space to maneuver inside the box. The Earthquakes instead beg their opponents to shoot from distance - and take their chances that Cannon can stop the chances. To that effect, he has been superb between the posts, with five of the seven goals allowed being first-class efforts, including two MLS Goal-of-the-Week award winners.

Make no mistake; this is a motivated defensive unit this season that is working very hard to erase the painful memories of 2009. Add in contributions in defense from the Quakes wingers Bobby Convey and Joey Gjertsen, and this team has a chance to finish the MLS season near the top of the shut-out list.

Speaking of defense, James Riley was a fan favorite for the Quakes defense in 2008, and many were sorry to see him picked in the expansion draft before last season. How has his game developed over the last 18 months since donning the Rave Green?

S@H: The first six months last year Riley was playing two positions at the same time. Part of that was due to Brad Evans tucking in a bit too much while technically a right mid, but it was also because Riley offered the best long range service in the attack. Then there was a match when a game winner was given up coming from the man that Riley should have had and Keller called him out.

That led to improved defense from James, but also better timing. He still gets forward, though less often, but when he gets forward he is involved, not just an unused option on the attack.

Sounders fans also got to deal with the surprise of seeing Riley exposed in the expansion draft, but were thrilled to keep him. He is one of the most active athletes in community projects and has showed up at dozens of charity events.

Let me ask you about a player that did not start out all that well for San Jose when he returned to MLS last season. Bobby Convey was moved around a lot in the line-up last year, but this year is stable at Left Wing. Is his performance strong enough to make the fans forget Darren Huckerby?

CLS: Huckerby will never be forgotten, even though his stay was cut short by a season ending injury later in 2009. His dynamic runs and deft scoring touch are skills that Bobby Convey does not replicate. "Hucks" was also the type of personality that the fans gravitated toward. He wore his heart on his sleeve and never gave less than 100% effort when he was on the pitch.

Convey is finally settled in with the club at the left midfield position. Paired up with defender Ramiro Corrales on that side of the pitch, the two former U.S. Men's National Teammates have quietly combined to be the most effective left-sided tandem in MLS. He is the perfect two-way player for Yallop's 4-4-2 system that stresses speed on the wings, and is able to provide cover in defense when Corrales makes overlapping runs into the offensive third. Where Hucks was a scoring machine, Convey is the place-setter. His assist total so far this season is greater than all of last season, and he shows no signs of slowing down. A halftime benching from Yallop in the season opener got his attention - a moment Convey called the lowest point of his professional career - and he now has gained the respect of the Buck Shaw faithful for his work both on and off the ball.

Speaking of a fan favorite, Fredy Montero seemed to take a lot of heat for his seemingly on-field indifference in the early season. Is this a case of the talented forward saving himself over the long summer, or does he already have one foot out the MLS door as he awaits his departure during the summer transfer window?

S@H: Montero is five minutes of brilliant. In any given match you will see something that only the best players in the world can do, but he does shut down for long stretches. Is prone to not making runs, sulking after getting fouled and at worst just giving up. A large part of me feels that he's looking overseas already, but he's got to realize that if he played at his best for even a half rather than just five minutes he would be moving on quickly and to a top team.
Instead Seattle has a Fredy Montero that was required to be benched to get motivated. Saturday we get to see if that move carries over into another week or if Sigi needs a new gimmick.

I wanted to ask you about a newcomer to the ‘Quakes this season, Joey Gjertsen. This may surprise you, but Gjersten is a local product who has made the step up from USL-1 to MLS. How's he fitting into the game at the next level?

CLS: Gjertsen really burst onto the scene with his arrival in San Jose. Not an outwardly ambitious player, his workmanlike attitude and tactical awareness have helped him fit in nicely on the right side of the midfield. Given his experience playing more centrally in the USL, Gjertsen also possesses the ability to cut into the area and pick out teammates for scoring opportunities. His only goal in MLS came on a Bouna Coundoul howler in the 4-0 win against the Red Bulls a few weeks ago, but in training you see a player with a real nose for finding the spaces in the opposing defense to generate quality shots on goal.
Gjertsen has been somewhat slowed over the last couple weeks due to a sore hamstring, but Yallop has no plans to leave him out of the starting XI for the game this weekend in Seattle. It will be nice to see how he responds to being back in his home area; perhaps the Qwest Field crowd will give him a warm welcome.

Well, that takes care of the questions leading up to this weekend. Given what you've seen so far this season, what are you predictions for Saturday's game?

S@H: If San Jose gets a goal it will be off a set-play. Seattle is going to have Alonso and Ianni paired as defensive midfielders, and so run-of-play opportunities will be rare. Seattle's offense is just waiting to be uncorked. The team has the talent to be a league leader in scoring goals, but this isn't likely to be the week.

I don't often give predictions but I'll go 1-Nil for the Sounders.

CLS: Seattle did so well at home against the Earthquakes last season that I am concerned that the same result is in store for them this season as well. The Quakes have not been able to pick up a win on artificial turf since they returned to MLS in 2008. The team did get a share of the points last week in New England, but that came against a Revolution team that is ravaged with injuries and lacking a scoring punch. If the Sounders offensive sleepers wake up in time for the noon kickoff and test the Quakes defense throughout the game, I find it hard to believe San Jose will earn any points in the match.

I'll agree with you and give the nod to Seattle in a 1-0 victory. That would give the Sounders the early lead for the 2010 Heritage Cup, but set San Jose up nicely for the return leg later this season.

Dave Clark is a proud member of the Sounders FC Alliance Council and his work can be found on the website Sounder at Heart.