Chris Wondolowki will look to make it four goals in four games against the resurgent New York Red Bulls. Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com.
In an effort to try something different this week for my preview of the upcoming Earthquakes game against Red Bull New York, I touched bases with my friend Nathaniel Baker over at American Soccer News. As a fellow MLS beat reporter, I thought Nat could fill us in on some of the details surrounding this week's visitors to Buck Shaw Stadium. So, hearkening back to an old late night television show broadcast from the city that Red Bull claims to be from, we played a game of point/counterpoint over e-mail this week.
Center Line Soccer: RBNY looks like a completely different team on the field this season as compared to 2009, and now has 15 points in their first 6 games. What is it about the coaching style of Hans Backe and the tactical strategy he has installed that has lead to such a remarkable start to the season?
American Soccer News: What Backe (and GM Erik Soler, who also deserves credit) have done is boil things down to where they are very simple: A straightforward 4-4-2 formation. Players are slotted into an assigned position and are kept there. Tinkering with the lineup is kept at an absolute minimum, if not excluded outright. The strategy is simple as well: Control possession, try to dominate the midfield. If nobody is open play the ball long rather than try something fancy.
This is 180 degrees different from what Juan Carlos Osorio was doing last year. He switched formations constantly and was never satisfied with a player's position, moving guys in and out of slots whether they had played there before (or had any aptitude for it) or not. He seemed obsessed with creating a quasi "Italian" style of defensive system, but took this to ridiculous extremes, sometimes bunkering regardless if the team had the lead. I swear I saw him bunker when the team was actually down a goal. He'd also substitute in defensive players when the team was losing. Crazy stuff like that.
Backe also brings experience as a head coach. Osorio had a brief stint at the Chicago Fire but otherwise had never been a head coach before. He also struck me as a micromanager where Backe is more of a laid back Scandinavian guy.
Having said that, looking from a personnel perspective this team is very similar to the one that went 5-19-6 in 2009. Seven of 11 starters were with the team last year. And honestly, its performances have not been dominant. In fact, it has several lucky wins. Sure, you create your own luck to an extent. But with one exception (last weekend's win at DC United), all victories have come by one goal. I think the team benefited from having some opposing players (Jeff Cunningham and Freddie Ljungberg come to mind) in early season form where they didn't convert gimme chances. Jeremy Hall is a liability at right back but he may be replaced by Chris Albright on Saturday, who is returning from injury.
That actually serves as a perfect lead-in for my question to you: Is Bobby Convey's renaissance for real? Because if it is, and if Jeremy Hall starts at right back, it could be a long day for the New York Red Bulls.
CLS: Bobby Convey is playing with a new found vigor this season that seemed inconsistent in 2009. Paired on the left side of the Quakes 4-4-2 formation with defender Ramiro Corrales, the two US Men's National Team veterans are working well together both in defense and transition. Last year, the Quakes had Darren Huckerby as the left winger, and tried to play Convey at left back. The combination did not suit the playing style of Convey, as Huckerby did little to help in defense, so he needed to stay rooted to the defensive line. As a midfielder, he has the opportunities to get forward both with possession and as a target winger. Corrales is also able to venture forward at times, and Convey is able to cover for him. Additionally, Convey is taking care of some of the dirty work in midfield by effectively challenging opponents with tight coverage and slide tackles. Looking at his performances after the season opener, Convey continues to improve and he has established himself as the Quakes first-choice midfield winger.
A big problem for the Red Bulls last season was in defense, where the team leaked in an Eastern Conference high 47 goals. What is the difference so far this season?
ASN: Ah excellent question. This is one area the team actually has been transformed personnel-wise. Other than the aforementioned Jeremy Hall, that is. Roy Miller was brought in to play left back and has done admirably. Mike Petke, whom a lot of people had written off as washed up after last season, has had a rebirth. But the biggest difference has been the emergence of rookie Tim Ream at the other centerback spot. The kid is amazing and plays with a poise way beyond his 22 years. Nobody quite knows how he fell so far in the draft (late second round, behind many guys who haven't even seen significant minutes) because he appears to be an early favorite for rookie of the year. We've already penciled him in as a future national team back. That's obviously a bit premature and he only has six professional games under his belt. But he has been the biggest difference for this team.
Speaking of defense, the Quakes haven't allowed a goal at home since the first game of the season? Is that a coincidence or is there an explanation for it?
CLS: The Earthquakes were even worse defensively than the Red Bulls last season, letting in a league-high 50 goals. After the 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake in the home opener, many feared the team would continue down that path. However, I watched these guys spend a great deal of the preseason working to define their defensive shape. 2009 starters Jason Hernandez, Chris Leitch, and Corrales all returned, while drafted newcomers Ike Opara and Steve Beitashour along with ex-Chivas USA defender Bobby Burling joined together to form a cohesive group. Coach Frank Yallop has needed to juggle the starting four from that group, but with little consequence on the field. With Joe Cannon fully healthy and not facing a barrage of MLS Goal of the Week candidates, the Quakes are settling in with a defensive shape that was often lacking last season. Add to that the effect of Brandon McDonald as a defensive midfielder and a narrow field at Buck Shaw Stadium, and opposing offensives have little space to be creative in front of the Earthquakes goal.
Knowing that, what will New York forwards Juan Pablo Angel and Salou Ibrahim need to do to create chances in the offensive third? What has worked for them so far this season?
ASN: I'm not sure Angel and Ibrahim need to create chances per se; they just need to convert them. So the more relevant question is who and what can serve them the ball? The answer is Joel Lindpere. Probably the most influential acquisition the team made in the off season (even more than Ream), Lindpere brings pace and creativity to the Red Bulls' central midfield. Then again, were talking about Buck Shaw, so isn't everything central midfield? It's not like there is ample space on the wings to exploit.
Another guy to watch is Dane Richards, who had his best game of the year against DC, assisting on the winning goal. But Richards is a head case (in that he doesn't appear to have that much upstairs) and has been maddeningly inconsistent. He'll show signs of life, or of becoming a legitimate star, and then he'll follow it up with a performance that leaves fans scratching their heads and calling for his scalp. So if past patterns hold, the Quakes should have nothing to worry about. Then again, Dane hasn't been THIS good in a long time. So who knows.
Then there's the left midfield spot, which will be occupied by the team's newest acquisition, Brian Nielsen, if he is healthy (heard something about him having some irregular pulse or something). This guy has mad pace and technical skills to boot. But again, with space at a premium will he be able to work his magic?
Are you serious? Is Chris Leitch playing well for you guys? We had him a couple of years ago and he scored more goals for the opposing team (quite literally) than prevent them.
CLS: Leitch did very well last season, missing only one game due to a red card suspension. His consistent play on the right side of the defensive line resulted in him being named the Earthquakes 2009 defender of the year. Add on his ability to run the wing into the attacking half and create scoring opportunities for his teammates, and he had a banner season. Perhaps he is a changed player from his time in New York. Instead, I propose that Leitch is now playing a position he is comfortable in, with a centerback in Hernandez that helps him cover the right side of the defensive four. Heck, he even scored a wonderful goal in the failed U.S. Open Cup play-in game back in April against Real Salt Lake.
Paired on the right side with crafty midfielder Joey Gjertsen, a former USL-1 MVP, Leitch should continue his stable ways this season. The nine-year veteran is now within the window of his peak playing years.
So I want to know, what formation should we expect from the Red Bulls, and how are they going to manage to break down what is proving to be a very stubborn Earthquakes defense?
ASN: Sure. Okay well you're definitely going to see a straight-up 4-4-2, which the team has played with all season. The back line will consist of Roy Miller, Tim Ream, Mike Petke and Jeremy Hall (Chris Albright will not make the trip).
Those are definites. The forward line of Salou Ibrahim and Juan Pablo Angel is pretty much certain as well. Where it gets interesting is in midfield. Brian Nielsen, who should start at left mid, is at best a substitute for this match. Carl Robinson is out. So the Red Bulls have to fill half of its midfield starters. Dane Richards at RM and Joel Lindpere in the center are definites.
I expect to see Seth Stammler at left midfield, a position he played well at DC last week. With the narrow Buck Shaw pitch you can afford to put a central midfielder in that spot. I also expect to see Tony Tchani start for Robinson. This would be Tchani's first start in MLS.
So who are the Quakes main forward threats?
CLS: The Earthquakes made some noise this offseason by signing the Brazilian forward Eduardo as a free agent from FC Basel in Switzerland, and also picked up ex-Quake and KC Wizard Scott Sealy on his return from the Israeli league. However, both veterans currently reside on the bench as coach Yallop has chosen to go with last year's leading scorer Ryan Johnson alongside Chris Wondolowski. Wondo, as we all call him, got his first start this season due to a spate of injuries to the guys ahead of him of the depth chart, and has seized his chance with three goals in his last three starts.
While there is some concern that Johnson has yet to get on the scoresheet, he has had some quality chances early on this season. The Quakes are content to soak up pressure with their defense then attack directly up field on the counterattack. As opportunistic finishers Johnson and Wondo are well suited to strike when the chances come. Wingers Joey Gjertsen and Bobby Convey will also join the attack, especially as providers of the ball into the penalty area. It should be a lot of fun to watch Johnson and Wondo challange for the ball against the Red Bulls tough central defensive due of Mike Petke and Tim Ream.
Well, Nathaniel, time to ask you what is your prediction for the weekend? Can the Red Bulls continue their road success and stretch their Eastern Conference lead with a possible win against the Quakes?
ASN: Honestly, I doubt it. Wondo is hot and we know Ryan Johnson has skills. He'll also be able to knock Ream around a bit. I don't think Jeremy Hall will be able to contain Bobby Convey at all. Another thing we haven't discussed yet is goalkeeper play. Bouna Condoul is a terrific athlete and excellent shot stopper but cannot play the position to save his life. He's a liability, though the narrow pitch should help him some (fewer crosses). Unfortunately I'm stuck with a 2-2 prediction, which is what I called on a pair of podcasts this week (Around The League and Seeing Red! The New York Soccer Roundup). In fairness, I made that thinking Albright would play for Hall. If I could have a do-over in light of this development I would call 3-1 Quakes.
CLS: Well, I feel the Earthquakes are content to play a simple strategy of defend and counterattack. Hopefully, the quality of play won't be as ugly as it was at times against Colorado, but I predict the game will have the same final score. Another 1-0 win for the Quakes and their third home shutout in a row.