The San Jose Earthquakes welcome the Portland Timbers to Buck Shaw Stadium this weekend in desperate need of a victory. Winless over their last nine MLS league matches, the Quakes are steadily sliding down the table and are in danger of seeing their chance to return to the playoffs get away from them. Hosting fellow Western Conference foe Portland, who sit one point above San Jose in the standings, the match shapes up as a genuine “six-pointer” for two sides with postseason aspirations.
While the Earthquakes will be bolstered by the return of head coach Frank Yallop’s preferred defensive back four, the team’s offense is still in a state of flux. Having failed to find the back of the net in seven of the nine games in their current winless streak, the team is searching for a way to break through their offensive doldrums. Team scoring leader Chris Wondolowski is set to move back into a more forward role, but he is missing teammates Steven Lenhart and Simon Dawkins who have combined for 9 goals on the season.
“The load can’t always be on Wondo,” explained Yallop when asked where the scoring needs to come from. “We had two guys that lightened the load for Chris and doing very well I thought. Steven Lenhart until the last couple of games where he was a bit off is back down south making sure all his family stuff is taken care of. Dawkins being out, he is a quality player coming into our league, I thought he was playing great.”
Neither Lenhart, who is on an indefinite family leave of absence from the team, nor Dawkins, who is still rehabilitating a nagging hamstring injury, is expected back any time soon, so Yallop will need to find other players to provide some offensive spark. With the Earthquakes last victory coming on June 11 away to DC United — a high-water point for the season followed the 4-2 win, as San Jose found themselves leading the league in goals per game — the team has tallied only four goals in their last nine games. At Buck Shaw Stadium, the Quakes last win came against Houston at the start of June.
“We’ve not played particularly well the last few games at home,” admitted Yallop. “Before that we were doing okay. The first half of the L.A. game was the best we’ve played over 45 minutes, but we were just not inventive over the last 45. I thought we moved the ball well and were creative. Right now we are a little bit stale on that front.”
That staleness was never more evident than in the team’s last match, a 2-0 loss to DC United, when the Quakes attempted only two shots — one on target — when the game was played 11 v. 11. Matters improved when DC were reduced to 10 men, but San Jose still couldn’t find a way to score. The 20+ minutes without scoring a goal to end the match continued a trend that has plagued the team all season — not once have the Earthquakes scored when playing with a man advantage. The likelihood of breaking that offensive staleness this weekend against the Timbers does not look hopeful.
“Just having some inventiveness would help,” explained Yallop. “Wondo is a finisher and Scott Sealy is a target forward; they’ve been about hustle and bustle, but we don’t have anyone like Simon that gives us a little bit of guile and unpredictable play, quickness and sharpness. Not that we rely on any one player, but I think between him and Lenhart we had some forcefulness and creativeness underneath. At the moment, we don’t have either.”
One player that coach Yallop hopes can add to the offense is Bobby Convey, who he plans to line up at left midfielder in an effort to get him more involved in the attack. With left-sided partner Ramiro Corrales slotting in at left back, Convey will have more room to run the flank, but is also expected to venture into the center as well.
“I want players that are in advanced positions, including Bobby Convey, to get assists and goals,” started Yallop, as he described what he wanted to see out of the MLS All-Star. “That is what you are there for. That is the whole point of you playing near goal is to be creative and not just pass sideways and backwards. So Bobby needs to get the ball and go forward and get some shots off and be creative. We talked about him not just hanging out wide, but go and seek the ball and go inside. Don’t go too far in, but be active and don’t just stand out wide and wait for the ball. You need to go get it. We had a good chat and I hope he can do that for us Saturday night.”
Wondolowski, who recognizes that he can’t do it alone up top, welcomes the opportunity Convey will have to be more involved in the offense. Harkening back to his teammates outstanding 2010, when Convey supplied a team-high 10 assists, Wondo was confident that Convey could return to that role of provider.
“We need to make more chances,” shared Wondolowski when asked how the team could break free of their offensive staleness. “I feel we don’t need to always look for that killer shot, but maybe serve some balls into the box, and have some guys make some more runs into the box. When we do get our chances, we have to finish them; that’s going to be key.”
Facing a team in the Portland Timbers that has given up a conference-high 34 goals thus far this season, and has earned only 5 points on the road, the chance to right the scoring ship is at hand. Find the back of the net just once may be enough to dispatch Portland, as the Timbers come into the weekend's match having scored only two goals in their last six road games. However, overcoming the continued absences of Lenhart and Dawkins will be the Earthquakes biggest challenge to breaking free of their offensive staleness. Their result from Saturday night will reveal if they are making moves in the right direction.
(Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com)