Man, oh man, that was not a pretty game at the Buck last night. And not just the performance from the Earthquakes, as the 2-0 score line to DC United flattered to deceive the visitor’s rather ordinary effort. A sloppy error from emergency starting center back Nana Attakora let Dwayne De Rosario nab the first goal of the game, and the former Quake doubled his tally when the patchwork defensive line made like an Auguste Rodin sculpture garden. In fact, for quite a few fans in the stands, they took on the pained expressions of the French artist’s famous Burghers of Calais.
Perhaps catering to the fans' need for sustenance and hope, DC United tried to help out the home side when Andy Najar chopped down Joey Gjertsen and was given a straight red card as the Earthquakes midfielder raced in on goal. Two goals down, but playing a man up, San Jose pressed forward over the last 20 minutes of the match and attempted seven of their game totally nine shots in that period. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was really only tested once, as Chris Wondolowski had a great one on one chance, but his good positioning left little room for the shot to find the target. It was the best spell of the season for the Earthquakes when playing with a man advantage, but the team continued its streak of not finding the back of the net under those circumstances.
At the final whistle, midfielder Sam Cronin flipped up his shirt in frustration, while the crowd expressed their displeasure with a chorus of boos. The third sell-out of the season for the Quakes at Buck Shaw Stadium ended like the previous one — the scoreless draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy — with players looking almost stunned that they couldn’t find a way to score a goal.
The excuse that the Earthquakes were fielding a weakened side that was unable to build momentum due to the unfamiliarity of the players with one another rings hollow. These are professional athletes that have a job to do on the field. They have a coach in Frank Yallop that is responsible for making sure his starting XI have the instructions to be effective in his desired tactics. It might be simply that the current San Jose team is not skilled enough to be a playoff caliber team in MLS, but their opponent Saturday night was definitely beatable. Without a true playmaker in the center of the midfield, the Quakes ceded too much possession and showed too little creativity in trying to develop their offense. If the team is unable to add to the roster in the remaining two weeks that the summer transfer window is open, the Earthquakes will only find it that much harder to break their nine match winless streak.
Last season was a pleasant eye opening example of that a team that spends limited resources can do in a parity-influenced MLS. Riding the breakout performance of Wondolowski and the reemergence of goalkeeper Jon Busch, the remainder of the team filled their roles with steady and effective play and together they reached the post season for the first time as the rebooted San Jose Earthquakes. The shrewd signing of Geovanni as the first Designated Player in the franchise’s history was a catalyst to energizing the players and the fan base over the last couple months of the season. While the Brazilians stats were not earth shattering, his class and abilities helped sustain the growing confidence the team developed in the summer months, and together they knocked off the heavily favored Red Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
Geovanni was deemed to be too expensive to keep on the roster for the 2011 season, but the core of last year’s team was coming back, and expectations that the Earthquakes would again make the playoffs were high. In fact, coming out of their preseason training camp, it appeared that all the team was missing was that one possession minded midfielder that could provide cohesion to the Quakes front and back lines. Maybe paying Geovanni just over a million dollars would have been fiscal overkill for that kind of talent, but the intangibles he brought to the team over the 2010 stretch run were worth the money. Now past the halfway mark of this season, when the total salary for a DP-quality Geovanni-like player is more financially manageable, the Earthquakes could again benefit from making another big signing for the second straight summer.
Back to Saturday night’s loss to DC United, and the most glaring weakness that the home side displayed was in the center of the midfield. Khari Stephenson made some nice passes, but they too often went laterally instead of toward the attack. Sam Cronin provided little of the fulcrum required of the defensive midfielder position, and too often gave the ball away easily to DC United. Wondolowski often drifted centrally from his left midfield position, but he found the space already crowded by the Earthquakes forward duo of Alan Gordon and Scott Sealy. Obviously he prefers to be up top, but his teammates need to adjust — or Yallop needs to start him as a forward — to keep some semblance of shape moving into the opponent’s half of the field.
Speaking of the two forwards, Gordon up top looked uncomfortable at times, most likely a reflection on his unfamiliarity with his new team — though not an excuse, mind you — and did not venture to turn the ball upfield when he collected passes as a target forward. In contrast, Sealy looked very comfortable starting up top, and had his best game of the season. Without much in the way of help from the midfield, he too often was left without a quality passing outlet, and he suffered giveaways. However, he was far from the most egregious in that respect on the night, and looked promising enough that he should see time as a starter again next weekend. Perhaps to shake things up, Sealy and Wondolowski should pair up against the Portland Timbers this coming Saturday and the Earthquakes should try to press the opposing defense with speed instead of physical size. If the midfield can contribute as well — something they did not do effectively against DC United — a Timbers team that can be vulnerable to the press may yield the goal scoring opportunities that are failing to materialize under the current set-up.
The bottom line is that the players and coaches need to find a way to rally together and regain the confidence they displayed back in May of this season. MLS can be very forgiving when it comes to long winless streaks — if the Quakes pick up maximum points over the next two weekends, they are right back on the doorstep of being a playoff qualifier. Whether or not another Geovanni, or even another Huckerby, is added in the remaining summer transfer window, the Earthquakes have shown glimpses of being a team deserving of the postseason. With a dozen matches left in the 2011 season — 36 points up for grabs — the current malaise can be corrected. Next Saturday against the Portland Timbers, we’ll see if both players and coaches have what it takes to make it happen.