The age-old adage in sports is that "Defense wins championships," and for much of MLS history that has been the case. But with the introduction of a key rule change by the league in determining the order of standings has brought about an offensive resurgence this season.
Now, it is still true that the team with the best record will finish at the top of the regular season standings and win the MLS Supporters’ Shield, but in case of a tie at any position in those standings, the team with more goals scored will rank ahead. This is in contrast to last year’s policy — and that which most leagues around the world continue to follow — that used goal differential as the first tiebreaker. The message to MLS teams: Score more goals and be rewarded.
As the San Jose Earthquakes close in on their second Shield in franchise history, the statistics show how the new rule is pushing the team to new heights. In 31 matches this season, with 3 still left on the schedule, the Earthquakes have amassed a club record 65 goals — 10 more than in their previous record year of 1997. Chris Wondolowski has lead the way with 22 goals, and teammates Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart have also tallied in the double digits. Offensive fireworks are certain to carry the Earthquakes to the top of the table.
But what about the defense? San Jose has allowed 39 goals this year, well off the franchise record for futility, but also more than half the teams in the top ten of the MLS standings. Will this reckless abandon on offensive come back to haunt the Earthquakes come the playoffs?
First things first, San Jose still has its eyes on the Supporters’ Shield prize, and going about its business of bludgeoning opponents with its offensive prowess is certain to continue. And for the defensive unit that has often been exposed via the counterattack, the mission remains the same: get results the way that has worked all year and capture the Shield
"If we can finish the season off as we’ve played the majority of the season I think we can do it," said defender Jason Hernandez. "That will be very good for us leading into the postseason."
The Earthquakes need one more point to secure the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and six points to claim the Supporters’ Shield. Both goals can be accomplished if the team continues their franchise record run of play.
"We’ve taken pride this year of offensively being pretty dynamic and being able to score goals," said Hernandez. "And at times of the year we’ve shown the discipline needed to walk away with clean sheets and good solid defensive performances."
Combine both, and the San Jose Earthquakes will have momentum on their side when the calendar turns to November and the chase is on for the MLS Cup.
"With the season winding down and in the home stretch," said Hernandez, "we want to make sure that we are going into the playoffs not limping in but feeling good and feeling positive and that comes from performing well and getting results."
After requiring another late comeback to earn a point against FC Dallas last weekend, the Earthquakes travel to high-altitude Denver to take on the Colorado Rapids this Saturday. Already with a win this season at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, San Jose will want to put together a similar performance to secure all three points.
"We can perform well all we want, but if we are not getting results it won’t matter, and the same vice versa," said Hernandez. "We’re looking to go into Colorado and put in a good performance from front to back and get a result."
Perhaps the Earthquakes will need to tighten up defensively in the MLS Cup playoffs, but at least to finish out the regular season, San Jose will look to keep doing what has worked all season.