Reading a typical match report after having watched the game just hours before, it can be difficult to connect the emotions experienced at the time with the often sterile words being read. The ebb and flow of play — and the astute observations made therein — does not always yield itself to such dry analysis. Even watching the game a second time does little to help with comprehending the actions of players and coaches, who themselves relied on instinct more than anything when it came to their decision making. When you already know the outcome of a set of events, can you really judge the context by which those decisions came about?
Sports commentary is wrought with second guessing by reporters and participants in what did or did not affect the outcome of the game. However, that is what we are tasked to do — to break down a game and dissect the moments that contributed to one team’s success and another team’s failure. For many, the role of Monday morning quarterback — to borrow a phrase from the NFL — is as germane to the start of the work week as firing up the workstation after its 64 hour respite from activity. Part celebration and part commiseration, joining in conversation with your colleagues on the weekend’s sporting results is both satisfying and therapeutic.
Okay, before I really go off the deep end in this introduction, let me step back down the diving board ladder and state what’s really going on. Saturday night saw the New York Red Bulls completely dismantle the San Jose Earthquakes in the first meeting between the two teams since the Quakes triumphed 3-1 in last year’s MLS postseason. Perhaps with revenge on their minds, the Red Bulls atoned for that November meltdown with a dominating 3-0 win that was as one-sided an affair as has been seen in the league so far in this young season. Most pundits place New York among the league’s elite teams, but San Jose also garners much respect, and this match was predicted to be much more competitive. Instead, while fans in the Big Apple cheer the arrival of Luke Rodgers and the return of Thierry Henry, supporters in San Jose are left scratching their heads and asking the toughest of questions — was that just a hiccup, or is something really wrong with the Earthquakes? In perhaps too simple a manner, this week’s GBU on QRG frames that debate in breaking down the Quakes breakdown at Red Bull Arena.
Good — Finding what went right for the Quakes in a 3-0 game that could have easily seen New York double that score is no easy task. Chris Wondolowski again had a quality scoring opportunity turned away by the goalkeeper, laying to rest my concerns that his 2010 season was a fluke. Wondo is getting shots on goal consistently, as he was last season, but is not beating the ‘keeper to the tune of a scoring efficiency more than twice that of 2010. The issue for Wondo comes more in the quality and quantity of service in and around the area — which does not seem to be in abundance when he is playing more as the target forward. His best place in Head Coach Frank Yallop’s preferred 4-3-3 formation is as a withdrawn forward or outside midfielder. The expected debut of Steven Lenhart into the Earthquakes’ line-up this week should help Wondo out tremendously.
Back from that tangent, my Quakes player of the match was Ike Opara. The second year man out of Wake Forest is quickly establishing himself as the top defender on the team and allaying fears that his injury-filled 2010 season would be problematic moving forward. Opara was a bright spot for a defense that was leaky all evening long at Red Bull Arena, and even showed a flash of creativity in the New York area earning a free kick and assisting on the team’s best scoring opportunity in the first half. His distribution acumen from the back line still needs improvement — he has a ways to go before he can match his Red Bull and future USMNT compatriot Tim Ream in that regard — but it already shows signs of being better than his centerback mate Brandon McDonald. Having displaced Jason Hernandez in that central duo with McDonald, Opara is unlikely to lose his starting spot unless he picks up an injury. The bigger question surrounding Opara is who Coach Yallop should pair with the tall athletic defender — McDonald as physical enforcer or Hernandez as technical partner.
My last thought on what went right in the Red Bulls game actually turns to the man in the center of the pitch with the FIFA patch on his left breast pocket. Yes, for all the gripping about the referees in MLS, Chris Penso delivered a nearly flawless performance in his first-ever MLS regular season assignment. The rookie ref may have missed the Hernandez takedown on Joel Lindpere that upon video replay looked to deserve a penalty in the second half, but otherwise seemed to control of the match through its entirety. But, I can’t help but think that Penso has it easy given the flow of the game, which leads me right into this week’s "bad" for the Quakes.
Bad — Why did Penso have it so easy? Simply the Earthquakes were not aggressive in closing down New York all match, allowing the vaunted Red Bulls possession game to dictate momentum on both halves of the field. Whereas New York made it very difficult to move the ball around when San Jose tried to muster up possession, the Quakes seemed intent on allowing the Red Bulls as much space as they wanted outside of the attacking third. This defensive shell did little to give the Quakes the spacing necessary to carry the ball out of their own half with any consistency, and probably should have been abandoned after they fell behind by two goals in the first 16 minutes of the game. Continuing to play passively only served to give New York more confidence to stream numbers forward into the attack and with better finishing would have resulted in more scoring.
Chris Leitch, who came into the game as a second half substitute at midfield — more on that in a second — was quoted after the game as calling this a "hiccup" in the Quakes early season. The lack of aggression by San Jose, especially by the defense, in trying to disrupt New York may indeed be a case of the team not giving their best; however, I also think it points out the relative strength of each team in the overall MLS rankings. The Red Bulls have a loaded roster that when given the opportunity to play their game — as the Quakes gifted on Saturday evening — will invariably finish the season in contention for the Supporters Shield. Meanwhile, the Earthquakes did little to convince casual and weekend observers that they are even a playoff worthy team this season. Having watched them as carefully as I do, the Quakes have the talent to assure themselves a postseason berth, but they need to show much more energy and desire in execution. I also believe that with another potent scoring threat — maybe Lenhart will provide that — San Jose has what it takes to make a successful run to the MLS Cup final in 2011.
Ugly — As I described in the introduction, with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to criticism the in-game management of coaches and players in a way that being in the moment does not allow. With that in mind, I found it shocking that Coach Yallop did not make any substitutions at halftime in an effort to shake up his team and make them more aggressive and effective. Simon Dawkins was invisible for long stretches of the first half and Ryan Johnson was not able to provide any respite to his defensive teammates by maintaining possession of the ball in the New York half. When Coach Yallop did go to the bench — in the 62nd minute — he brought in Leitch as a right outside midfielder, while shifting Wondolowski to the center in what looked like a move to help Hernandez shore up that side of the field. Playing Hernandez out of position at right back — he has developed in his career to be much more effective centrally — has been problematic for the Earthquakes in each of the last two games. Leitch may not have the speed of Hernandez, but he has a veteran’s experience to know what needs to be done and I argue that he would be a better choice starting at right back.
Going back to the decision to bring in Leitch, it struck me as more of a concession to New York that the game was already lost and that the Quakes were going to try to limit any further damage. Remember, the score was still only 2-0, and while the momentum of the game was clearly in favor of the home side, perhaps some tactical substitutions to bring in more attack-minded players would have disrupted the one-way flow of action that was descending upon Jon Busch’s goal. With Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Brad Ring available on the bench, I would have rather Coach Yallop gambled on either of those younger players to effect positive change for the Quakes’ offensive efforts. While Leitch did an acceptable job in his 30 minutes — he does have a good sense of when to move forward from his right back spot that seemed to translate well from his midfield assignment — Ampaipitakwong may have found more success centrally where the subbed off Khari Stephenson did not.
Whether the Earthquakes were just outplayed and outhustled by a better team or the result was more of a hiccup in a season destined for greatness will have to be assessed as the season progresses. The first measure to answer that question comes this Saturday with visit of Chivas USA to Buck Shaw Stadium. If the Quakes fancy themselves an MLS Cup contender, dispatching of the Goats at the Buck is paramount in convincing anyone outside of San Jose that that is within the realm of possibility. Can a Week #6 MLS regular season game be considered a must win match? I believe from standpoint of the team’s confidence the answer to that is yes.