What a difference a month makes. As the hours ticked away on the last day of April, the San Jose Earthquakes helplessly watched as a dubious hand ball call on Jason Hernandez led to a penalty kick goal for the Philadelphia Union and a late 1-0 win. Waking up the next morning and flipping their calendars forward, the term “Mayday! Mayday!” took on a whole new meaning as the Quakes found themselves rooted to the bottom of the MLS Western Conference standings. Could the season already be written off just seven weeks after it began?
The seeds of change were planted in the week leading to the trip to Philadelphia, and despite failing to pick up a result against a 10-man Union side, the Earthquakes’ performance on the field was markedly improved. Midfielder Brad Ring, not the most technically gifted player, brought his work-rate and tough-mindedness to the center of the pitch. A reconstituted defensive line showed signs that they would not allow scoring opportunities though mistakes. Physical forward Steven Lenhart finally was rounding into shape and quickly becoming the target striker that head coach Frank Yallop had coveted in the three-plus years he has been in San Jose. The 1-0 scoreline signified a loss, but the team deplaned from Philadelphia with the confidence that results from a win.
Fast forward through May, and the distress signals sent up at the beginning of the month were received and the team rescued the still young season by going unbeaten in their next four MLS matches. Throw in the most successful U.S. Open Cup qualifying run of the new Quakes four year existence, and May marked a transformation away from the disinterested looking team that started the season, to a group of players that whether they were starting or on the bench worked collectively to post results.
To be fair, the four Earthquakes opponents in May did not represent the cream of the MLS crop, and all are likely to miss the 2011 postseason when all is said and done, but finally seeing the team perform more to their potential was encouraging enough to believe that better days were ahead for San Jose. Besides, dropping points to any perceived inferior opponent at this point is unacceptable to the Quakes as they embark on a mission to climb back into upper echelons of the MLS table.
Last Saturday, with the calendar page turned to June, the Earthquakes built upon their unbeaten streak with their third home win in a row with a 2-0 defeat of the Houston Dynamo. A fifth opponent in a row that is in danger of finishing outside of a playoff spot — though the fact that the Eastern Conference must send a minimum of three teams to the postseason gives them a fighting chance — the Dynamo looked rather ordinary against the Quakes. San Jose’s next two matches take them on the road to face two more struggling Eastern Conference teams, DC United and Sporting Kansas City. No less than a draw in each of these games should be expected, and the Quakes will rely on their renewed defensive effort to make that occur.
But first, to sum up the weekend that was with the San Jose Earthquakes, Quake, Rattle and Goal! presents the Good, Bad and Ugly — the GBU on QRG — on the 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo.
Good — With Chris Wondolowski and Ryan Johnson representing their countries at the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament, San Jose needed to find some offensive punch from the players that remained. Steven Lenhart progressed well in the month of May and was fully integrated into the Earthquakes’ tactical plans, so it was no surprise to finally see him break through with his first goal for San Jose. The fine diving header followed an equally fine delivery from defender Steven Beitashour to give the Quakes a 1-0 lead. Yes, Lenhart may have been offside as the video evidence suggests, but the goal was very well taken, and much deserved for the blond-haired striker. Not playing with much authority in the first half and going to ground much too easily, Lenhart stopped trying to earn fouls and stayed involved with the play after half time. His improvement allowed for more confidence from his teammates that they could move forward into the attack and not be punished by sloppy giveaways from the striker.
The second goal came courtesy of Simon Dawkins in stoppage time. After weathering a frenetic comeback attempt from the Dynamo, the Quakes were able to counterattack off a clearance and Dawkins raced onto a pass with a perfectly timed run to dribble onto goal unopposed. Having only days before returned to full training with the Quakes, Dawkins played just 15 minutes against the Dynamo but proved what a valuable asset he is to the San Jose midfield. Wondo and RJ may be gone for the next few weeks, but Dawkins is primed to fill in for the Quakes’ offensive needs.
Bad — Simply put, the Earthquakes have not shown much urgency in play for the first half of each of the last four matches. Though winners in three of those contests, San Jose almosts appears to deliberately play cautiously to open up games. Coach Yallop has acknowledged that, but dismissed the apparent lack of offensive effort with an explanation that he does not want to see his side go down a goal early in games. While that has been a problem for this team in the past, and statistics show that throughout MLS the team that falls behind first loses the vast majority of matches, sacrificing any offensive thrust in exchange for a first half clean sheet does not always make for an attractive brand of soccer. In fact, if you had arrived at Buck Shaw Stadium last Saturday night during the intermission and asked someone to describe the highlights of the match so far, the conversation would need no more than 30 seconds to complete.
Is it wrong to bunker down in the first half and then rely on a second half renaissance to capture points? Perhaps it is stylistically, but tactically the answer is no. San Jose made the postseason last year for a variety of reasons, but one that stuck out was their ability to frustrate opponents with a cohesive defense and surprise them in the attacking third with quick-strike and set-piece goals. It’s a strategy that works in MLS — just ask the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids.
Ugly — Very little went wrong for the Earthquakes against the Dynamo, so finding the ugly in the 2-0 victory will be more like nit-picking. A constant refrain from the media during the week leading up to the game was “What to do without Wondo?” Coach Yallop made the decision early in the week to move midfielder Khari Stephenson up to the forward position in his 4-4-2 formation, and he asked the tall Jamaican to play withdrawn from Lenhart in the Quakes attack. Looking rather uncomfortable in that role, Stephenson looked out of place during many of the transition sequences from defensive possession to offensive. He might have two of San Jose’s most dramatic goals of the 2011 season thus far, but Stephenson did not show the ability to move off the ball effectively in order to maximize the hold-up play coming from Lenhart. Looking forward, Yallop might want to consider changing his choice for second striker of changing his formation to be more midfielder loaded. Dawkins return from surgery presents a good attacking option, as does rookie Ellis McLoughlin. Both should feature in the weekend match at DC United.