The San Jose Earthquakes put together their most complete performance against a quality MLS opponent last night since last summer. That it came against the same team the Quakes beat back on August 2 at Levi's Stadium, the Seattle Sounders, is mere coincidence. This victory was more due to the increased emphasis for attacking soccer that new head coach Dominic Kinnear has instilled in the team since taking over in the offseason.
So with memories of San Jose's 3-2 win at CenturyLink Field still fresh in our minds, Center Line Soccer takes a look at Three Things that caught our attention and deserve further discussion.
1) Three DPs on the field = 3 points in the standings
For the first time this season, Kinnear was able to get all three of his designated players on the field at the same time, and the combination play and the attacking prowess from the trio was evident to all. With Matias Perez Garcia commanding the ball in the center of the pitch and Innocent Emeghara running rampant on the left wing, striker Chris Wondolowski was able to do what he does best: get into open spaces within the opponent's defense. And on his first goal of the evening, that is exactly what Wondo did.
"He was good tonight," said Kinnear. "I mean two goals is what you want from your forward, and two different kinds of goals. He's a good finisher. He took his first one nice, two-touch, and then obviously took advantage of the mistake for the second one."
The second one was a direct product of the Earthquakes strategy of pressing Seattle every time they gained possession. With the teams still playing 11 vs. 11, Wondolowski stayed high up the field and chased down goalkeeper Stefan Frei at every opportunity. His advanced position allowed him to be in the right place at the right time when an errant back pass from Brad Evans didn't have the pace to reach Frei, and Wondo pounced on the loose ball to hammer home the Quakes second goal of the evening.
The advanced play of all three Earthquakes DPs unsettled Seattle for long stretches of the game, and helped the visitors deny the attacking duo of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins the ball in the attacking third. With Emeghara playing more as a midfielder, the Swiss international was also able to show off his skill on the defensive side of the ball as well.
"Absolutely," said Wondolowski. "Tonight was definitely a team win. We have guys like Innocent [Emeghara], who was kind of playing out of position at left mid, but he was working his tail off to track back and defend, while still getting forward as well."
Perez Garcia was substituted out of the game following Victor Bernardez's ejection in the 52nd minute, but not before providing the midfield engine the team has lacked since Rafael Baca left for Cruz Azul in Mexico following the 2013 season. Perez Garcia's evening was cut short by necessity, but his impact was felt as the Quakes led 2-1 on his departure.
Three designated players on the field at the same time was the recipe for three points in the Western Conference standings. Kinnear has certainly cooked up something that Saturday night was tasty for everyone outside of Seattle.
2) San Jose's center back depth to be tested against Chicago
When Bernardez lashed out at Michael Azira and was rightfully shown a straight red card by referee Baldomero Toledo -- Toledo'ed! -- the Earthquakes tenuous one-goal lead looked in jeopardy. And when the Honduran's center back partner Paulo Renato left the game 10 minutes later with an apparent hamstring injury, the chances of holding the lead against the Sounders looked extremely thin.
But the Earthquakes, behind some valiant emergency defending by Ty Harden and JJ Koval, as well as the goalkeeping exploits of David Bingham, one week later the hero and not the heel, saved San Jose and kept Seattle from completing its comeback attempt. Good for the Quakes on Saturday, but now a big question comes up for the home opener at Avaya Stadium next Sunday: Who starts the game at center back against the Chicago Fire?
It will likely be a few days before the status of Renato is disclosed, but the availability of Bernardez is not in question -- he will be suspended at least one game for his reckless tackle. Harden is rested and ready to start against the Fire, but the status of Clarence Goodson, who aggravated a foot injury in the preseason, is less certain.
Goodson was with the team in Seattle, but he was not included in the match-day 18 by Kinnear. The U.S. international looked set to be ready for opening day; however, a pair of preseason appearances was all he was able to muster up and injury woes set back his return to the Earthquakes starting line-up. Kinnear may not have much of a choice this Sunday against Chicago but to throw Goodson into the, well, fire. And if Goodson is deemed unable to start, Koval will need to be ready.
"I'm really happy for the guys," said Kinnear of the result in Seattle. "I thought it was a great performance by us. A lot of things were stacked against us tonight - goal in the first minute and then a red card. I thought we played particularly well, scored some real good goals, took advantage of some mistakes and really happy with three points. It's a tough place to come and play and I thought we showed a lot of bravery tonight in winning the game."
The Earthquakes will need that same bravery on Sunday at Avaya Stadium to find their second victory of the still young season.
3) How the West can be won: The blueprint for success against Seattle
After playing a much more defense-minded game in Dallas, Kinnear loosened the reins in Seattle and allowed his attack-minded players the chance to assert themselves early and often. An early goal from Dempsey could have deflated the Quakes, but they went at the Sounders with an intensity little seen from the team in the last year. From Wondolowski up top, to Bingham in goal, the Earthquakes made it very difficult for Seattle to hold onto possession anywhere on the pitch.
"Well, it's good to see an effort like that no matter when," said Kinnear. "We needed it. If we didn't have that effort tonight, we were probably going to lose the game. They still created some chances, but we did some good last-ditch defending."
Playing a man down did change the complexion of the game, but even then the Earthquakes still found a way to score against the Sounders. Strong defensive pressure from Shaun Francis on the left wing initiated the sequence the led to Emeghara's game-winning-goal, and even that from the outside back was well up the field from the defensive shell he could have expected to fall into with his team playing short-handed.
"It's a great team win," said Wondolowski. "It's never easy to play up here. Seattle's a great team, possess it well, especially when they're a man up. We had to dig deep. We dropped a little deeper than we would have liked, but I think it was huge to get that third goal."
The redemption of Bingham was also a big factor, and with upcoming uncertainty in the back four this Sunday against Chicago -- and maybe for additional weeks beyond that -- the new Quakes #1 will need to continue his steep learning curve in goal.
"He's a good goalkeeper and he's getting some more games, getting some more confidence," said Kinnear. "A couple times he came out and caught the ball, relieved pressure, and that's what you need sometimes when you're under pressure like that."
High-tempo pressure on offense and defense, like that seen at CenturyLink Field, is the blueprint for success in 2015. And if the defense can stay healthy and Bingham does his job, the Earthquakes have a great chance to stay relevant in a very difficult Western Conference. Kinnear's crew is a work in progress, but the display against Seattle raises hope that the best from the Quakes is still to come.