It wasn't the best performance by the San Jose Earthquakes this season -- that honor goes to last week's impressive 3-2 win at Seattle -- but it was good enough to down the Chicago Fire 2-1 in the grand opening game at Avaya Stadium.The sell-out crowd was announced at 18,000 (though with standing room only tickets the actual number was certainly higher) for Avaya's debut, and they did a good job of making the atmosphere more imposing than anything ever experienced at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Welcome home, San Jose!
The Quakes scored early and hung on late in besting the Fire, as the visitors played the perfect opponent on a day that everyone in the stadium wanted to go in San Jose's favor. And even when the Earthquakes offense took off the second half, the defense stepped it up and gave up a grand total of zero shots on goal. Overall, it wasn't pretty -- that was reserved for beautiful Avaya Stadium -- but it was what was required to earn another three points.
So with the new-stadium smell to fresh in the air, let's look at the Three Takeaways that caught our attention and deserve further attention.
1) As Alexi Lalas would remind us: set pieces, set pieces, set pieces
The Earthquakes may have invested heavily in attacking trio Chris Wondolowski, Innocent Emeghara, and Matias Perez Garcia -- three designated players that are expected to create and finish scoring opportunities in the run of play -- but a part of their game that can, and will, be important to their success in 2015 is set pieces.
Perez Garcia, who was arguably the man of the match for San Jose on Sunday, has settled into a nice role as a withdrawn forward, playing the ball from sideline to sideline, and keeping opposing defenses off balance. His composure on the ball has led his markers to foul him on numerous occasions, often enough in the attacking third that the fouls lead to free kick scoring opportunities. That MPG is also a dead-ball specialist doubles his value in getting things started on set pieces.
The target of virtually every free kick and corner kick delivery so far this season has been JJ Koval, a strategic pattern that was evident throughout the Earthquakes preseason slate of games. Koval athleticism has allowed him to reach most of those Perez Garica entry balls, both to attempt shots of his own and to set up his teammates. On the first Earthquakes goal, this was very evident.
MPG sent in an out-swinger corner kick that Koval did well to get his head on just prior to onrushing goalkeeper Sean Johnson's clearance attempt. The ball nicked off of Ty Harden, who by that time was enjoying a mouthful of Johnson's gloves, and was met by Clarence Goodson. The center back's header was on target, but likely would have been cleared off the goal line. Instead, Fatai Alashe, sensing the Chicago defender behind him, redirected the ball into the net for a one goal Earthquakes lead.
A set piece goal, more in the style of those seen in hockey than in soccer, that was equal parts opportunistic play by the Quakes as it was a bit of a blunder by Johnson. But it was four players that aren't necessarily associated with San Jose's offense -- two centerbacks and two central midfielders, all advanced on the set piece chance -- that cashed in the corner kick. And it all started with MPG's well placed delivery.
Goal number two was another set piece, though one that had a different make-up than the first, that again highlighted the importance that the Quakes defenders will have in boosting the team's scoring numbers. Harden was the beneficiary this time, poking home a rebound from a Goodson shot that Johnson had spilled in the area. Goodson won't get the assist on the goal, but his participation on dead-ball situations will be a major factor for San Jose in 2015.
2) What can we expect with the Avaya Stadium field dimensions?
There was considerable consternation among a segment of the fanbase regarding the field dimensions that head coach Dominic Kinnear would lay down on the Avaya Stadium field. A comfortable 115 by 74 yards for the preseason match against the LA Galaxy -- the same San Jose employed at Buck Shaw Stadium -- the field had almost the same dimensions on Sunday for the Fire game, narrowed by two yards to a cozy 115 by 72 yards.
Why all the hand-wringing? A wide-open layout to some means more space for free-flowing possession-based soccer. But that does not seem to be the tactical focus of Kinnear's Quakes -- they like to play quickly up the sidelines and into the attacking third without too much build-up to slow things down -- and a field on the narrow side would emphasize the high-pressure, counter-punch methodology he has instilled in this team.
Fears of a Spartan Stadium sized pitch were unfounded -- the bowling alley of a field at the former home of the Earthquakes made for some exciting end-to-end action -- or even a BBVA Compass Stadium layout of 72 yards wide like Kinnear employed with great success in Houston. When the Dynamo opened their new stadium in 2012, they embarked on a 35-game unbeaten streak at home, an MLS record. Would it be all that bad if the Earthquakes were to replicate such a feat in Avaya Stadium?
The increased emphasis on speed in the Quakes line-up will actually benefit from the current Avaya configuration. Using pace to escape close spaces, all while closer to the opposing target, will give the Earthquakes wingers a bit less ground to cover with their deliveries into the penalty area. Plus. a narrow field will make it easier for defenders on overlapping runs to get back into the play if possession is lost in the opponent's half. Maybe 72 yards, as is the current pitch width is already too much.
Kinnear's job is win games, and if that means using field dimensions that some would criticize as too small, he will certainly not lose sleep over their outcries. Avaya Stadium is not Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado or the StubHub Center in Carson, and that is a good thing for the Earthquakes.
3) Central midfield was the Quakes weakest link against the Fire
Lost in the euphoria of the 2-1 victory over the Fire was a glaring weakness in the center of the pitch by the Quakes midfielders. The first twenty minutes of the game aside, Chicago was able to have its way against MPG and Alashe in its buildup play and through Koval when its possession brought it past the center line. The Earthquakes center back duo of Goodson and Harden were there to clean up the mess, but too often the Fire offense made inroads through the spine of the Quakes team.
Alashe has looked increasingly confident with each appearance -- remember, he missed most of the preseason recuperating from a groin injury -- but he is still a rookie and he is still learning on the job. MPG is on the field to provide offense, so he is not expected to track back much on defense. Against Chicago, the Argentine did earn his share of lumps in his own half, though that seemed to be more a product of the Fire pushing matters in the second half. Koval was the one who had the most difficult afternoon of the three.
The second year midfielder has been entrusted with a box-to-box role in Kinnear's formation, and at times he has shown enough aggression to put opponents on notice. Koval is not an enforcer, however, electing to use his industry to cover more ground than any other player on the team. To expect more on that front is probably unrealistic. Where Koval could improve his contribution is in distribution -- working more as a pivot to connect defenders with wide midfielders and with Wondolowski pressing back from his forward position. A bit more heads up passing and a little less heads down running will benefit everyone around him.