The World Cup is not over quite yet, but for all intensive purposes, MLS is back in full swing. For the San Jose Earthquakes, this means that the time is now to turn things around. The team hasn't had the best run of form recently, and tonight should be a significant test against the team at the top of the Eastern Conference, DC United.
Fortunately for San Jose, one significant reinforcement is returning. Here are three things that could influence the Quakes' encounter vs DC, starting with San Jose's main man up top.
1. The Chris Wondolowski Effect
Heard enough about this one yet? For a more in-depth account of what's happening with Wondo's return, see Nerdy Gales' earlier piece on the striker. I'm going to take a look at how his return could potentially affect the Earthquakes' entire offensive scheme.
This includes the performance of his forward partners, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. The Bash Brothers are much beloved by those in the Quakes community, but their production of late has left much to be desired. For a pair that contributed so much to the team in the Supporters' Shield run in 2012, no league goals between them this season is simply not good enough.
In fact, we have to go all the way back to September 21st of last year for the last time either player scored. Steven Lenhart had a brace at Salt Lake to earn the Quakes a crucial three points at the time. But that was 19 league games ago. The hope is that Wondolowski's return can inspire his teammates a bit and snap them out of the offensive funk.
He should also provide a much needed outlet for playing the ball on the ground in attack. Players such as Khari Stephenson and Yannick Djaló are adept at carrying the ball through the midfield, but lately there has been a disconnect when they try to play the incisive ball forward. Wondo's presence should give them an option to slide the diagonal ball through for shooting opportunities.
2. San Jose's Midfield Arrangement
The past couple of matches have seen Coach Mark Watson's hand forced into some odd midfield formations. We've seen Sam Cronin inserted into a hybrid winger role in which he regularly interchanges with Djaló to the inside as play dictates. When this happens, the Quakes essentially deploy four central midfielders at once: Djaló, Cronin, Stephenson as the second striker, and Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi in his usual position.
This system has been less than stellar as the Quakes have failed to score in the previous two home matches. Tonight should see a bit of normalcy returned to San Jose's lineup. With Wondo as the second striker, Watson will likely bring back the diamond midfield formation that found the Quakes some success before the World Cup. I expect to see Stephenson as the attacking midfielder, with Pierazzi in the defensive role and Cordell Cato opposite Djaló on the wing.
With Wondolowski added to this formation, look for much more fluidity from the Quakes' play. Stephenson will have a wealth of passing options when he collects the ball in the attacking third. Look for Djaló to continue his false winger role and cut into the middle, with Jordan Stewart overlapping at side back.
3. Earthquakes Defense vs DC's Varied Attack
It's hard to say whether Victor Bernardez will get his first start since returning from World Cup duty, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Muma feature prominently in this match. Good thing too, because United bring a capable attacking force with multiple players who can step up at key moments.
Luis Silva in particular has seized his chance to start in place of the injured Fabian Espindola. Some of you may recall that Espindola, DC's leading scorer, went down in the opening minutes of the team's away match against Montreal back on June 11. Enter Silva, who netted an impressive hat trick that game to lead United to the 4-2 win.
Add to that the threat of Nick DeLeon and Chris Rolfe on the wings, with Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen centrally, and you've got a team that can hurt you in plenty of ways. Despite Eddie Johnson's relatively disappointing season so far (just one goal and one assist through 14 matches), he's still a dangerous player that the Quakes will have to watch out for.
This one will certainly be a good test for San Jose all over the pitch. But if this team wants to turn its season around, games like this at home are ones that have to be won. Here's to hoping that Wondo can inspire a clutch three point performance tonight.