With the San Jose Earthquakes scheduled to play two league matches in the span of four days, head coach Frank Yallop has promised some juggling of his starting XI in an effort to keep players fresh or both contests. Unlike the pattern Yallop typically employs of throwing out the same starters in the game immediately following a victory, he stated after training earlier this week that he has a different plan for tonight’s match.
“We have good versatility in this club,” said Yallop. “I could have easily gone ahead with the group that did well in Portland, but I feel match-up wise and performance wise I want to make some changes for Vancouver. After Wednesday we’ll look ahead to the next game (against Columbus).”
The changes Yallop alludes to appear to be in the offensive core that have been practicing together in anticipation of getting the starts against the Whitecaps. Leading the way at the top of the Earthquakes revisited 4-4-2 formation will most likely be target forward Steven Lenhart and Quakes’ leading scorer Chris Wondolowski. Lenhart will be especially important for San Jose, given that Vancouver has proved to be vulnerable to physical players on set pieces so far this season. Wondo will presumably fall into that withdrawn forward role he favors and make his runs off the hold-up play of Lenhart.
Of note the last two matches has been the emergence of Wondolowski as the Earthquakes new team captain. Coach Yallop downplayed the captaincy change from Jason Hernandez and Ramiro Corrales by claiming that the latter two did not feature in the past two games. This is not true, of course, as Hernandez started against Philadelphia and Corrales started against Portland. However, the change appears to be more about leadership style and as a way to call attention to all his players that he wants to see more initiative being taken during the run of play.
“I felt Wondo deserved to lead the team,” said Yallop. “Whether I stick with that moving forward, we’ll see. More importantly, I want eleven leaders out there.”
Turning to the defensive side of the formation, Yallop does not appear to be making plans to change things up from the Portland game. With the home field of the Whitecaps at Empire Field being synthetic turf — very similar to that of Jeld-Wen Park in Portland — the Earthquakes will lean on the familiarity playing on turf developed by the back four in their 120 minutes of soccer in the recent U.S. Open Cup qualifier.
“I felt the back four played very well in Portland and I expect I will stick with it for Vancouver,” revealed Yallop. “They had nice balance across the line. Ike (Opara) did very well on set pieces on both sides of the ball, and he paired nicely with Bobby (Burling).”
That means that alongside Opara and Burling, the Quakes will send out Steven Beitashour and Ramiro Corrales. Both outside backs played well at times in Portland, but also looked vulnerable to speedy wing play from the Timbers. Corrales especially had some difficulty with Sal Zizzo and Ryan Pore from Portland, and he will certainly face another stern test from Whitecaps forward Camilo and midfielder Davide Chiumiento on Wednesday night. With the Quakes settling more into a 4-4-2 formation, the overlapping runs from the outside backs will be less plentiful, so Corrales will not need to cover as much ground as he has in games earlier this season to fulfill his defensive responsibilities.
Another pair of holdovers from the Portland starting XI appears to be central midfielders Sam Cronin and Brad Ring. Ring especially had a good week in both the Timbers game and the Philadelphia Union game the weekend before. While both Cronin and Ring tend to be labeled as defensive midfielders, coach Yallop sees things a little differently in pairing up the two.
“I was very happy with Brad Ring’s performance in Portland,” assessed Yallop, “so he’ll have a good chance of playing on Wednesday. I thought Sam (Cronin) did a good job in there. They both play a similar game, but Brad’s more of an attacker and Sam’s good on the ball.”
Cronin was blunt in assessing the play of the team over the first seven games of the MLS season, and offered up his thought on what to expect Wednesday night in Vancouver.
“We’ve played defensively well and offensively poor, and we have been offensively strong, but defensively poor,” said Cronin earlier this week. “We need to put a full effort in on both sides for a full game and the results will go our way.”
The only uncertainty left in projecting the Earthquakes starting XI against Vancouver comes in the outside midfielder positions. In training earlier this week, both Bobby Convey and Ryan Johnson spent time playing on the left side, while Scott Sealy and the healthy Joey Gjertsen played on the right. Gjertsen faces the chance to face the club where as a player he earned USL1 MVP honors in 2006, but given how the players trained together earlier in the week, the likely starters Wednesday night against the Whitecaps are Sealy and Johnson. Somewhat interchangeable with Wondolowski as a forward, the trio of attackers may end up switching positions often as the play dictates against Vancouver. Most importantly, as a group — with Lenhart included — they need to be more tidy in possession so that the Earthquakes can create scoring chances and set-piece opportunities in the attacking third.
“We are making sure that we are defending correctly,” said Yallop, “which can sometimes take away from the offensive side of things. I still think we are creating some good chances to score, but we’ll continue to work at that and remain active and pushing to get more chances.”
Considering the additional set-piece abilities of Opara and Burling as targets in the opponent’s penalty area, and the Earthquakes look set to challenge Whitecaps goalkeeper Jay Nolly with a plethora of potent finishers.
Lastly, goalkeeper Jon Busch will be back between the posts for the Earthquakes against the Whitecaps. Back-up Andrew Weber did well against the Timbers, but Yallop indicated that he has every intention to go with his #1 this Wednesday night. Kickoff at Empire Field is at 7:00 p.m. and the game airs on Comcast SportsNet California in the Bay Area.