Fifteen games into the 2013 Major League Soccer season, the San Jose Earthquakes were floundering in the standings, having collected only 15 points. In a shock announcement, the team and long-time head coach Frank Yallop parted ways, leaving trusted assistant Mark Watson at the helm. Injuries, to be sure, had hampered the Quakes efforts, but flaccid soccer also doomed the team to a less than stellar encore less than a year after winning the Supporters' Shield. All but the most ardent fans of the team decided that any hopes of making the playoffs were dead.
But then a revival broke out at Buck Shaw Stadium. Under Watson's direction, and with newcomers on defense in Clarence Goodson and Jordan Stewart, the club reversed course. What were losses early in the season became ties; what were ties in the season became wins. In 19 games to close out the schedule, the Earthquakes collected 36 points, finishing with 51 overall and tying with the Colorado Rapids for the fifth and final Western Conference playoff spot, only missing out on the postseason due to a tiebreaker.
His team left for dead, Watson spurred the second-half rally by returning the focus on defense. The Quakes stopped playing the go-for-broke style that led to 72 goals scored in 2012, but often left the formation stretched and vulnerable to counterattacks, and tactically looked to limit the scoring opportunities of opponents as a priority, letting the offense capitalize when the situation allowed. And if not for a scoreless draw against LA Galaxy in the penultimate match of the season, one which required a win, San Jose would have improbably made the playoffs.
Fifteen games into the 2014 MLS season, the Quakes are again struggling, securing 16 points and looking up from the cellar of the Western Conference standings. The same defense-first mentality is still on display in San Jose - the team has conceded only 16 goals in those 15 games - but the offense has not found its rhythm, and the Quakes count a measly 15 goals in those games. In an MLS season's worth of games as head coach, Watson has done an admirable job of shoring up the back, but he's done little to make the team more potent up front.
Sure, Watson's leadership in those 34 games has resulted in 52 points - a number that in a single calendar year would virtually guarantee a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs - but the margin for error has been thin. The defense has been impressive, statistically one of the top-three toughest in MLS to break through, allowing a meager 35 goals in those 34 games. However, the squad has combined to score just 37 goals in the same span. That the Earthquakes have managed to collect 52 points with those offensive numbers is very impressive.
But is San Jose playing too defensively?
"The challenge is finding that balance between both," said Watson earlier this week after an exceptionally long team training session. "Defending well will keep you in games and give you a chance to win them, and right now we want to keep our defensive stability, but we know we have to score goals to win games. It's been a big focus for us lately."
With the return of Chris Wondolowski from national team duty, Watson hopes the offense can take a step forward. After all, of the 15 goals the Quakes have scored in 2014, five have come courtesy of Wondolowski. The next best tally total on the roster is two, and target forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon have combined for zero.
"Having Wondo back will certainly help," said Watson, "We've really been working on getting to the spots on the field where we can attack the final third, and then attack in the final third with quality. We'll keep working on it, but we'll keep defensively sound. We know we need to score goals to get back in the pack and to have a chance at making the playoffs."
Remarkably, the Earthquakes terrific defensive numbers in 2014 have come in a season when ten different players have at one time or another manned the back four. Injuries, suspensions, and international call-ups have all contributed to a lack of a consistent back line over the 15 games played so far. Testament to Watson's defensive coaching acumen is the fact that San Jose claims the fourth best goals against average in MLS, but this only serves to highlight how one-sided the effort is toward defense.
"Maybe a little bit," said defender Ty Harden. "We've gotten a little bit better at keeping the ball and possessing the ball, but we've definitely had to defend too much, and at times that has caused us to bring extra guys back. Having said that, our defensive shape and our team defending have kept us in a lot of games that, maybe, if we didn't have that shape, we wouldn't have been in.
"Certainly, going forward, we want to keep the ball and put our opponents on their back foot and take the game to them."
And it will take more going forward to save San Jose from achieving an accomplishment it wants no part of. In the 18 year history of MLS, no team with a goals against average over an entire season as low as that currently sported by the Earthquakes has missed the playoffs.
"This team is not where it needs to be," said Watson. "Everyone is aware that we are not in the position we want to be in, and that we are not reaching our goals. Everyone is disappointed and pissed off. I know this group of guys is going to respond. They've been in tough situations before, and they always seem to respond and give you everything that they have."
Another possible salvation for the Earthquakes offense could come with the opening of the secondary transfer window earlier this week. Now through August 6, MLS teams can sign players from abroad to bolster their rosters, something the Earthquakes desperately need to do, though the prospect of it happening is still undetermined. Watson has repeatedly stated the club is always looking for ways to improve the roster, but that improvement may not be arriving in the form of summer signings. It may have to come from within.
"It's about scoring more goals," said Watson. "We at times have a lot of speed on the field, that's something we want to utilize, but we are looking at everything. The hardest thing to do in the game is to score goals, and that's something we are working every day on. Having a fuller and healthier squad and with the work the guys are doing on the training field, it's going to come."
"One of things we have been working on," said Harden, "is get back to the Earthquakes of old where we are pressing the ball more, defending a little bit higher, and possessing the ball a little bit more."
"Every day we are looking at what we need to do to get better," said Watson, "and the guys are approaching training with the right work ethic. Ultimately, that is all you can do."
Perhaps with 16 points, the Quakes are right where they should be in the table. If you only score once per game and you concede only once per game, it would make sense that you would collect only one point per game. The stunning 36 point haul over the last 19 games of 2013, when the team scored 22 goals and allowed 19, could be considered a statistical anomaly. Unfortunately, for the team's prospects of making the postseason this year, they will have to repeat the feat.
"With adversity, you test the character of a team," said Watson. "I know the character of this team, and I know they have what it takes to respond. Everyone is disappointed and we are not happy where we are right now. We know there are enough games to get things right, so that's the focus."