San Jose Earthquakes defender Chris Leitch scores against Real Salt Lake in a U.S. Open Cup match played April 14th, 2010. Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com
Chris Leitch knows that the New York Red Bulls will be a tough opponent this Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium. He played with their team during two different stints before becoming an Earthquake prior to the start of the 2009 season. He shared the field with clinical finisher Juan Pablo Angel, the speedy winger Dane Richards, and the steady midfielder Seth Stammler.
"Obviously, it's going to be a big challenge against those guys," remarked Leitch on facing his former team.
Not many people circled New York's visit to San Jose on their calendars when MLS released their 2010 match schedule. If this were still the tail end of last season, this matchup would simply be ignored by most MLS fans, given that both teams were mired at the bottom of their respective conference standings. Instead, the Quakes and the Red Bulls are currently playoff eligible, and New York is a surprise runaway leader of the Eastern Conference, having moved from worst to first.
"New York has really organized their defense well," explained Leitch, "and they are dangerous going forward. They can come at you from so many different angles."
While a lot of attention will be paid to the Red Bulls designated player Angel, currently pacing his club with 4 goals so far this season, Leitch recognizes that the Quakes defenders need to track him carefully and disrupt the service he gets from the midfielders.
"Stopping Juan Pablo Angel is definitely a challenge," said Leitch. "If you relax your effort for just one moment he can make you play. We'll have to keep our concentration on him throughout the game. But we can't lose sight on their other attacking guys as well."
An important player for New York in their early season success has been the Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere. A relatively quiet preseason acquisition for the Red Bulls, Lindpere is credited by many observers to be a very effective two-way player in the center of the field.
"From the games I've seen, Lindpere has looked great," Leitch went on to explain. "He's one the keys of the game for New York and the guy that gets them going. While Angel will have our attention, we'll also be looking to slow Lindpere down as much as possible."
Leitch is in line to match his second straight start of the season this weekend against New York. After earning a red card ejection in the match against Real Salt Lake and being replaced by rookie Steve Beitashour, Leitch regained his place in the starting XI after young defender suffered a hamstring injury. Leitch took it all in stride. Even coming off a season where he was named the Earthquakes Defender of the Year and also contributed a career high seven offensive assists, he knows there are no guarantees of playing time.
"We have a deep team this season," said Leitch. "I feel we are more complete at every position. We have confidence in each other, so that if one guy goes down, someone is right there to pick him up."
Head coach Frank Yallop concurred with the right back.
"Chris obviously missed a game with the red card," said Yallop, "but he is back in there now. He played well against Colorado last week, and has earned his place on the field. I hope he can give the same effort against his old team this week."
Having depth across the defensive line has pushed Leitch and the other defenders in training sessions as well. While Yallop is not fond of making changes to his starting line-up week-to-week, he is pleased to know that the squad will not face a significant drop-off in quality if someone is forced out by injury or suspension. For the upcoming New York game, the Quakes are expected to make another change in the defensive four as they welcome back Ike Opara. So far this season, the defense has remained consistent regardless of the changes, something Yallop hopes to see all season long.
Coming off two straight shutouts at home, the Earthquakes will look to make it three in a row against the Red Bulls. For Leitch, that is his focus every time he steps on the field.
"Although some things haven't clicked offensively for us this season," said Leitch, "we want to enter every game being a hard team to break down. Especially at home, I think we are proving that."
Leitch also knows just how important every game is in a league that has grown to 16 teams. With only half the teams qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs, he stressed how important their home matches have become.
"Clean sheets at home, that's we want every time we play here," said Leitch. "We want our opponents to have a hard time playing us at Buck Shaw. I am confident that if we take care of business at home, we'll definitely be in the playoff hunt."
The Earthquakes will have their work cut out for them against a confident Red Bulls team this Saturday. What looked to be an underappreciated game on the MLS schedule potentially stands as a good barometer for how far each club has come from last year's forgettable results. Chris Letich and the rest of his San Jose teammates hope to be up for the challenge.