I was somewhat vexed earlier in the week asking myself the question of whether the San Jose Earthquakes have the coaching and players necessary to be successful this season. In light of three straight loses in league play — and without a win since a 2-0 victory at Dallas in week #2 — the memories of the Quakes’ exhilarating run in last year’s MLS Cup playoffs never were more distant. A funk of mediocrity had descended upon a team that I thought during the preseason — a recognition shared by some of my colleagues here in the local media — was perhaps one quality player away from competing for the 2011 MLS Supporters Shield. However, with just over 20% of the season complete, the Earthquakes were rooted in the Western Conference standings basement, no different than after disappointing campaigns in 2008 and 2009. What the heck was going wrong in San Jose?
The most important person asking himself that question last week was Earthquakes’ head coach Frank Yallop. Stunned into silence by the team’s woeful performance against then-winless Chivas USA at Buck Shaw Stadium, Yallop promised big changes ahead of the weekend tilt at Philadelphia. He delivered with five changes to the starting XI, and the players responded with the best defensive effort in over a month. On Tuesday night, for a U.S. Open Cup qualifying match against the Portland Timbers, Yallop again juggling his starting XI and the players responded with a 120 minute extra time 1-0 victory. 210 minutes of soccer and a mix of 20 players collectively did not allow a goal aside from a dubious penalty, while playing with a fire that was lacking on the field for over a month.
Many readers will be quick to brush aside the victory in Portland as inconsequential to the Earthquakes being successful this season, and I will instead argue that the winning of any meaningful game — whatever the competition — breeds a culture of success that can lift the collective attitude around a club to one of confidence (look no further than Real Salt Lake.) Furthermore, the game against Portland was used by Yallop in conjunction with the game against the Union to further evaluate the line-up combinations that will give the team the best chance of winning in their upcoming games.
Unlike what some clubs do during fixture congestion, Yallop resisted the temptation to put out a “first team” starting XI in one game and a “reserve team” line-up in the other. Instead, he put out pairs of players into his 4-4-2 formation as a way of determining whether they should move forward in that pairing or need to be matched up with another player. Ramiro Corrales and Bobby Convey as a left-side tandem; Bobby Burling and Ike Opara as a central defensive team; Brandon McDonald and Brad Ring as midfield partners; and Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski as a striking pair. Total team chemisty starts in players developing a familiarity with each other in small groups before integrating fully with the rest of the line-up. As Yallop finds those complementary players within his roster, he can build a starting XI that will be most effective.
Another aspect to look at when taking the last two Quakes games together is the return of the aforementioned 4-4-2 formation in favor of the 4-3-3 used for much of the beginning of the season. When I talked with Yallop after Monday’s team training, he remarked on how pleased he was with the defensive effort against the Union — a challenge he presented to the team in training all last week. Looking back at what made the team so successful in 2010 was the total defensive effort always took precedent over trying to do too much in the attacking third. That mainstay strategy of building from the back had been lost at times in the early goings of the 2011 season, and Yallop instructed his team to bring that back to the forefront of their efforts. It does not always lead to beautiful soccer — I think back to the great visual performance put on by the Quakes in the season opening loss to Real Salt Lake — but it tends to earn more points. The conundrum of whether to win ugly or lose beautifully forces supporters who value entry into the MLS postseason to make a difficult decision. Winning with flair and beauty is achievable by few teams the world over — the Earthquakes are not even remotely in that conversation — and that style should always be the goal for the team. However, the path to reaching those lofty heights requires some “grinding it out” performances , and fans need to accept that if they want to see overall success from their team.
Back to the Earthquakes specifically, what did we learn from the week, and more importantly, where does the team go from here? Simply put, Yallop and his coaching staff have 210 minutes of soccer video to go over in evaluating the players in order to put together a combination XI that can stop the Whitecaps offense while giving them the opportunity to get the goal they need to earn all three points Wednesday night. In the 4-4-2 defensive formation we are likely to see, the importance is in counterattacking and set-piece skills. Speedy wingers like Convey, Justin Morrow, Chris Wondolowski, and Anthony Ampaipitakwong can take full advantage of that set-up. Physical players like Ike Opara and Steven Lenhart could prove pivotal for set piece opportunities. Solide defensive workhorses like Brandon McDonald and Sam Cronin can lock up the central space in front of the defensive back four. Mixing and matching the best from the Philadelphia and Portland games — games that saw the Earthquakes employing identical tactics despite the difference in on-field personnel — will give San Jose the best chance at reversing their early season skid and propel them back into the conversation of MLS teams worthy of making the postseason.