As the 2010 MLS season came to a close, the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes finished level on points in a tough Western Conference. Pipping the Quakes on goal differential, the Rapids ultimately hosted the Eastern Conference Final between the two sides and subsequently went on to capture the MLS Cup over FC Dallas. This Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium, the two teams face off for the first time in league play since that tight 1-0 Rapids win back in November.
While one goal separated the teams in the standings and on the field last year, the gap between the two clubs in 2011 is much wider. Colorado sit comfortably with a playoff bid heading into the last third of the season, while San Jose is four points off the pace and quickly sinking to the bottom of the Western Conference standings. So what has happened in the last nine months to push the teams apart in both results and prospects? Simply put, the Rapids are playing with a swagger befitting the Cup champions while the Earthquakes are still searching for the same confidence that carried them to the postseason in 2010.
The confidence featured last year by San Jose was never more evident than in the way the entire team pressed opponents back into their half of the field. That high pressure shortened the field for the offense, which for much of 2010 was a mish-mash of parts that looked to Chris Wondolowski to provide the goals. The same conditions have applied for much of this season, but for too many games the Quakes have looked reluctant to embrace the tactics that worked so well before.
“We are trying to play a high defensive line, but coach still wants us closing,” shared Wondolowski. “To be honest there have only been a handful of games where we executed it like last year, and when we have we’ve done well. That’s the key — executing. You can talk all you want about it and implement it into the game plan, but if you don’t do it, it is not going to work. When we have done it, it has worked as well as last year.”
Controlling the tempo of the game is typically the responsibility of the midfielders, for as possession goes in the center of the field so too goes the game. Against the Timbers, second year midfielder Brad Ring was the primary reason the Earthquakes were able to dictate the match for long stretches. The Indiana University product shared the message he and his teammates were given by head coach Frank Yallop going into that match.
“Frank wants us to pressure high and put the opponents under pressure,” said Ring. “That is where we are best. We feel we are better when we are all on our front foot forcing the other team to make quicker decisions. When we are all on the same page and rushing them — that is when we are at out best.”
Last week against the Portland Timbers, the Earthquakes did manage the game well using a high pressing line. However, it was not enough to get the victory, as the team still lacked the scoring opportunities to punish their expansion opponent. Taking another big leap forward in confidence and execution will be paramount to succeeding this week when the defending MLS Cup champs roll into San Jose, so is the team up to the task?
“Yes, definitely,” exclaimed Ring. “I thought last week we played fairly well possession wise, but I thought we let in a fairly weak goal. We didn’t create all that many chances so there is definitely room for improvement. I think it was a good performance, but not the best that we can play.”
Play like they did against the Timbers in this weekend’s game against the Rapids, and the likelihood of getting the full three points will be remote. The Earthquakes build-up in the offensive third has been lacking for much of the season, so causing turnovers and forcing their opponent into a limited possession game should do wonders to the team’s fortunes.
“I want us to press in their half because I think sitting back we are not good at doing that,” explained coach Yallop when asked how to handle the Colorado Rapids. “We’ve been trying to do it all year. We’ve worked hard at it and the guys want to get back on track and get a win. The only way to do it is hard work and making it more predictable what the opposition is going to do.”
Since playing with a sense of anticipation rather than simply reacting to the opponent’s play is typically the recipe for success in this game, the Earthquakes will look to press the Rapids midfielders and defenders whenever possible this Saturday evening. The task will not be easy for San Jose, as Colorado boasts one of the most formidable central midfield tandems in Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz. The two veterans cemented their partnership with the 2010 MLS Cup and have looked strong throughout this season. Ring, who is expected to make the start this weekend against the Rapids, eagerly awaits the challenge Mastroeni and Larentowicz present.
“They’re obviously a good tandem in the middle” said Ring, “but I like our midfield versus any midfield in the league. We are getting stronger as a team, so I like our chances.”
While the defense is coming into shape and the midfield is rising to the challenge, the Earthquakes still have concerns when it comes to the offense. With last week’s goal scorer Alan Gordon out indefinitely following surgery last Tuesday, San Jose will have to make adjustments on the forward line.
“He’s a great target forward and works hard up there,” said Wondolowski about his striking partner Gordon. “He has great skills and movement on and off the ball, and he will be missed. Anytime you have anyone out you’ll have to change how you go about things.”
Joining Gordon in the Quakes infirmary this week was spot starter Scott Sealy, who was ruled out for this weekend with a groin strain suffered on Thursday. With forward Matt Luzunaris still away from the team on personal leave, that leaves either rookie Ellis McLoughlin or veteran Khari Stephenson to line up alongside Wondolowski as the second forward. Given that McLoughlin is the only listed forward on the roster available, he seems to likely choice to start against the Rapids, but coach Yallop has more often than not preferred to play a more experience player out of position than to go with a rookie.
If Stephenson does get the start against Colorado, perhaps Yallop should look to adjust his formation to better suit the natural abilities of his starting XI. Keeping the Jamaican in the midfield, the Earthquakes could line up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that drops Sam Cronin to defensive midfield and pushes Ring up to join Stephenson as a second attacking midfielder. Such a formation worked well for the U.S. Men’s National Team late in the second half of their 1-1 draw with Mexico last Wednesday night.
Perhaps having Ring play up so high will also increase the pressure the Earthquakes can present to the Colorado defense — that would certainly fit in with the tactics coach Yallop believes can help his team find their first victory in eleven matches. And given that Simon Dawkins is available to play this weekend, the English midfielder could spell Cronin, letting Ring drop to defensive midfielder while subsequently bolstering the Quakes attack against a tiring Colorado defense. Stephenson also could exchange roles with Cronin, giving San Jose even more bite in the center of the field. Any of these substitution options preserves Yallop’s intent to pressure the opponent until scoring opportunities are created.
Whatever tactics are employed by San Jose this weekend, the test will be formidable and the stakes on an ever seemingly lost season will remain high. The Rapids and the Earthquakes combined for three 1-0 matches in 2010, so the margin for error is very slim if a similar match plays out this season. Play with confidence and intent to disrupt, and perhaps San Jose comes out on the right side of the score line Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium.
(Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com)