The San Jose Earthquakes are not playing good soccer right now.
First, the bad news: After dropping their second consecutive 1-0 decision, Saturday against the LA Galaxy at Stanford Stadium and last night against Chivas USA at Buck Shaw Stadium - two vital home games - the Quakes find themselves in the Western Conference basement with only 16 points from 15 games.
A glimmer of good, though hopeful, news: San Jose has 19 games left on the schedule to turn things around, and can catch three teams in the standings if it wins its games in hand. More importantly, if the team does what they did last summer, finishing the MLS season with the best second-half record in the league, it can still make the playoffs.
And now the reality: Go back and read the first sentence of this article.
The fans are frustrated in the stands, throwing arms in the air not in celebration of goals scored, but at the lack of scoring opportunities. Against the Galaxy on Saturday, the Quakes managed just a single shot on goal - a late Steven Lenhart header as the team was chasing the game. Against the Goats, that number improved to three shots on target, the first coming in the 15th minute, again illustrating the Quakes' futility on offense.
The players on the field and the coaches on the sideline are equally frustrated. In 15 games so far this season, the Earthquakes have scored a grand total of 15 goals - a mathematically simple to calculate 1.00 goal per game, but such numerical symmetry is not what San Jose is looking to achieve. No team in MLS has scored fewer goals this season.
"We were probably, in terms of play, the better team," head coach Mark Watson told reporters after last night's game. "But it's not about that; it's about finishing your chances and not conceding. We gave up a sloppy goal. In the end, they scored one and we didn't."
Watson, since ascending to the head coaching role following the departure of longtime coach Frank Yallop last June, has been credited with strengthening the San Jose defense. In the season so far, in those 15 games already played - 4 wins, 7 losses, and 4 ties - the Quakes have conceded a mere 16 goals. Only two teams in MLS have done better, LA and Sporting Kansas City; the latter sits in first place in the Eastern Conference. Defense has not been the problem.
In the Earthquakes back-to-back 1-0 defeats, Watson has used the same starting lineup. Injuries and World Cup absences forced his hand into selecting a squad that, on paper, was not necessarily his ideal eleven; however, of those players available, it was his best eleven.
"We've got enough quality in this locker room to win games," goalkeeper Jon Busch shared after the Chivas USA match. "I don't care who's injured or who's healthy; it's never an excuse. We have enough quality. We on the field have to find a way to get results, period."
The backline of Brandon Barklage, Ty Harden, Jason Hernandez, and Jordan Stewart, along with Busch behind them, was consistent over the two matches. A setup of Andreas Gorlitz, Victor Bernardez, Clarence Goodson, and Stewart would represent the best back four, at the start of the season, but their deputies have the talent to step in, and they have with aplomb, to keep the team's goals allowed number near league's bottom. Again, defense has not been the problem.
The six forward players in the starting lineup were consistent from Saturday to Wednesday, but Watson did a little tactical tinkering to try to get the best out of the group.
Against LA, Yannick Djalo, the team's best player on the ball, played in a withdrawn position behind target man Lenhart. Sam Cronin on the left and Cordell Cato on the right manned the wings, and Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi and Khari Stephenson marshaled the midfield. Without Atiba Harris and Shea Salinas available - the two best wingers on the squad, but both out indefinitely with injuries - Watson had to make due with what he had. Cato performed well at times, but Cronin looked woefully out of position against the Galaxy.
In last night's match, Watson rotated Stephenson into Djalo's role, Djalo into Cronin's position, and Cronin back into his more comfortable central midfield station. Now, it was Djalo that was playing out of position, with Stephenson also looking less effective in his new role as second forward. Starved of the ball out wide, Djalo had little impact on the proceedings against Chivas. Meanwhile, Stephenson and Lenhart never seemed to click together up front, often going for the same long ball instead of shifting into complementary space on the field. Cronin did well - and justifiably was miffed at being substituted in the 71st minute for Alan Gordon - but the tactical adjustments following the LA game seemed to hinder, rather than help, the Quakes on offense.
And about Watson's substitutions: in both games, with the team trailing but only a goal, the changes made seemed curious at best. At Stanford, a double substitution of Gordon and Mike Fucito for Djalo and Backlage in the 73rd minute gave the club some new life on offense, but the last minute cameo of Cardinal alum JJ Koval for Cronin suspiciously seemed less a tactical decision and more a chance to get the local kid some applause. The Quakes bench is certainly a bit threadbare, but against LA, down a goal, in front of 50,006 comeback inspiring supporters, dice must be rolled and not simply shaken in hand.
Dropping points to a conference foe, especially at home, for a team that says the MLS Cup playoffs is its goal, is inexcusable. And, yet, it happened again Wednesday night.
At Buck Shaw against Chivas USA, under almost identical circumstances to the Galaxy game, Watson replaced Cronin with Gordon in the already commented on above substitution. Then, in a bit of a head-scratcher, he brought in Bernardez for Barklage in the 79th minute. The move seemed less about tactics and more about giving the crowd a chance to applaud the returning World Cup star. The Honduran did receive a polite reception, but the move did seem designed to make the Quakes any more dangerous on offense. Finally, an underperforming Fucito entered in the 89th minute, time for 5 minutes of stoppage soccer, but too late to make a difference.
The remnants of the Buck Shaw crowd were not appreciative of the effort, and a smattering of boos rained down on the field. The locker room, as observed by San Jose Mercury News reporter Elliott Almond, was as somber as memory serves. What had to be considered a must-win match going into the evening instead, at the sound of the final whistle from referee Ricardo Salazar, saw the Quakes and Chivas USA flip positions at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. No excuses were given, not by Busch, not by anyone, but the feeling that the season had hit a nadir was palpable.
And hopefully it proves to be the nadir, that there are no further depths to sink to. Watson is, by nature, optimistic, telling reporters that he hopes to improve the squad in the summer transfer window that opens on July 8. The team will also welcome back Chris Wondolowski from national team duty after the U.S. dropped out of the World Cup against Belgium. The Quakes leading scorer on the season with five goals, Wondolowski should be ready to start against DC United on July 11. Maybe he'll have a new teammate or two with which to take on the surprise team of the Eastern Conference.
The San Jose Earthquakes are not playing good soccer right now, but the required fixes need not be dramatic to turn the season around. Get players back from injury, add effective newcomers to the roster, improve tactical and timing decisions on substitutions: every little improvement will help. The Quakes were 3-6-6 at this point in 2013, with one point less than this season, but they rallied back and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. That team believed they could make it, and this team should do the same.
It's not too late.